“Will you just shut up about your blimmin’ horse”
Those of you that know me, or have read a few reviews on here, will know that I have something of an aversion to puppets, specifically puppetry that tries to be realistic in its portrayal – Avenue Q’s fluffy monsters are fine in that respect – but something about the mimicry of ‘real life’ has never been something I have enjoyed watching and indeed freaks me out a little bit. Throw into the mix horses, an animal of which I am not keen, and it is perhaps unsurprising that I have never been to see War Horse. Nor had I ever intended to, but I made the mistake of saying that the only way I would go was if someone bought me a ticket for my birthday…and lo, guess what happened…
Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book, War Horse has been one of the biggest theatrical success stories of recent years: originally playing at the National Theatre in 2007, then returning for a revival the next year and then transferring into the West End in March 2009 where it has become one of the best selling shows in town, a genuine fixture at the tucked-away New London Theatre where its success shows no signs of abating, especially in the reflected glow of its award-winning sister production on Broadway. Quite why this is, I have to say still eludes me having seen the show, I couldn’t tell you what the magic ingredient is in here that has led to its enduring achievements aside from offering one of the most overly sentimental theatrical experiences possible.
The play opens in Devon in 1913, where young Albert’s feckless father has bought a foal at auction instead of paying the bills. Begging to be allowed to keep the horse, Albert develops a bond with the animal, spending long summer days as its companion, and naming him Joey. At the outbreak of war though, Albert’s father sells Joey into the cavalry, breaking his son’s heart; unable to bear the thought of his friend facing the battlefields alone, he lies about his age and enlists to bring him home from the horrors of the war and being stuck in a foreign language film. The original story was told from Joey’s viewpoint, telling of the war through the horse’s eyes, but a broader narrative is employed here, allowing dialogue and song to tell the story.
There’s no denying that Handspring’s puppetry is impressive, the way in which the puppets have been created doesn’t attempt to hide the artifice but instead focuses on the manipulation of them in the most intricate of ways: three people control each of the adult horses which means that there’s a huge amount of detailing in the movement of the horses which is undoubtedly a technical masterpiece. It still didn’t really override my antipathy for the art-form though if I’m honest: once the initial air of being impressed had worn off after the first appearances of each puppet, I found there little else to really engage my attention, it just felt like more of the same and I didn’t buy into the notion of Joey or Topthorn as genuine characters. Perhaps this says more about me, I’ve never been an animal lover, never had pets as a kid and never understood the emotional connection people are so willing to create with (dumb) animals: the transference of human characteristics onto animals being my least favourite aspect of this unknown world and I didn’t feel that this story did anything to illuminate why Albert forms such an enduring attachment to this horse at the expense of genuine human interaction, especially in the face of such terrible carnage and devastation to the menfolk of the village in which he lives.
Which in turn leads to the more severe problem I had with the show, the play itself. With the puppetry, I could see why people like it so much even it is not to my taste, but the weakness of the actual dramatic material around the horses, that of the humans in the play, I found to be quite shocking, though on reflection perhaps this is indicative of the trials of taking children’s literature and trying impose a much wider frame of reference on it to create theatre that appeals to adults as well. The characterisation and script are extremely one-dimensional, even lead character Albert remains basically unexplored thus the acting feels a little perfunctory rather than inspired, unable to rise above the limitations of the writing and consequently, the show falls back too often on the easy emotional manipulation of the sometime-beautiful folk balladry that haunts the production: Saul Rose’s expressive voice filling the auditorium nicely but ultimately replacing actual dramatic content.
And this air of sentimentality, the gooiness that accompanies much of the show, is what troubled me the most whilst thinking about the whole thing. Having recently watched an afternoon of brutally effective readings of the stark First World War poetry that lays bare the realities of that terrible conflict and been blown away by the starkness of Journey’s End, there’s something a little too cosy, even a little distasteful to me with the basic thrust of the story. There’s grand spectacle here to be sure – I liked the staging, the animations playing on the torn paper backdrop – and ultimately I am glad that I have seen it. It amuses me highly though that what I ended up disliking most about it was not the puppetry but rather the emotional hollowness that lies at the heart of this production. One for the animal-lovers among us clearly and I happily accept being in the minority here!