Most people, if they know anything about the story “War Horse,” think it’s a movie by Steven Spielberg. But before Hollywood got its hands on it, it was an award-winning play, a massive hit in fact, in London and on Broadway.
And now the first national tour of the Tony-Award-winning play bounds onto the stage at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre.
“War Horse” tells the story of a horse raised in the rural countryside of Devon, England who gets drawn into the British war effort during World War I. Named Joey, this horse is a witness to all the horrors of war as he ends up taking part in everything from frontline cavalry charges to the drudgery of pulling heavy artillery behind the lines.
And he sees the war from both sides of the conflict. After one particularly bloody battle, in which his British rider is killed, Joey is captured and put to work by German forces. From a horse’s point of view, there’s not much difference between the sides. Joey in a lot of ways bears silent witness to the inanities of human interaction. At the same time, he brings out a kind of humanity in all those he meets – whether British or German – a humanity often lost in the brutalities of wartime.
Given the scope of the story, what with all the battle scenes and the sheer number of horses involved, a stage version of ‘War Horse’ would seem not only problematic but foolhardy. But that “problem” is brilliantly solved by making Joey and his fellow horses all life-size puppets. Manned by three person teams, each horse is an impressive creation that can trot and nuzzle and rear up much as real horses do. The mimicry is remarkable. But more importantly, The Handspring Puppet Company which created the horses does not try to hide the mechanics of the puppets. This is not meant to be some magical illusion on stage. Instead the horses win you over by simply acting as if they’re real. And it’s that power of suggestion, and by extension the power of theatre, that “War Horse” ultimately bears witness to.
For some reason, it’s the artificiality of the horses, their very theatricality, that makes the stage play so much more effective than the movie. By the very immediate nature of film, Joey the horse is first and foremost a horse in all its obvious physicality. That inevitably focuses our attention on the emotional and sentimental story of this particular horse.
But with an artificial horse, you can have the best of both worlds. The stage Joey is believable enough for us to see him as a horse and yet at the same time he’s artificial enough for us to see him as something more – as symbol or metaphor, as an idea or thematic stand-in. He can represent innocence in the face of man’s depravity, or perhaps nature in the face of a mechanized world at war, or ironically enough, humanity in the face of the inhuman. This is the distancing effect that Bertold Brecht values in the theatre – an effect that prevents the audience from identifying too much with the characters on stage and instead allows the audience to interact with the play as critical observers.
And after all that intellectualizing, you can still just simply be wowed by the sheer majesty of that giant full-size puppet horse. Spectacle too has its place in the theatre.
War Horse plays at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre Feb. 13- Feb. 24.