War Horse is a masterful piece of ensemble theatricality. This simple story of a boy and his horse Joey is told with live actors and bunraku-inspired puppets, augmented by a series of projections against a screen that resembles a torn scrap of paper.
The trials of Joey, acquired by the English army for service in the last major war in which cavalry was used (the so-called Great War), are our entry into an account of the inhumanity of that war — hence, as told here, this is not a piece that younger attendees will have the patience for.
This is the sort of puppetry that works because you’re always aware of the machinery, so a change to the fabric covering the horses’ bodies tells us all that we need to know about their condition.
If the acting and the musical underscoring are at times melodramatic, the work knows that its most touching effects are the simplest ones: a paddock established by four actors holding staffs; fallen bodies on a battleground transformed into a graveyard’s mounds by the arrival of the women they left behind, in chorus; the twitch of a horse’s ear or the heave of a foal’s chest; wagon ruts established by rumpled scraps of cloth laid on the deck. Perhaps most dramatic is the death of Joey’s rival-turned-compatriot, the horse Topthorn. When Topthorn goes down, the puppeteers detach themselves from his armature and back offstage quickly, his departing life force briefly become personified.
- War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont, New York