Theatre Review: War Horse – a poignant play with cinematic flourish
Long awaited and highly anticipated, the U.S. tour of Nick Stafford’s War Horse cantered into the Ohio Theatre last night to a full house.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book of the same name, War Horse tells the tale of Albert, a teenage boy in 1914 England, and his horse, Joey. The two foster a strong and inseparable relationship as best of friends; however, when Joey is sold to the calvary at the beginning of World War I, Albert, despite his young age, joins the army solely to find his horse.
Stemming from a children’s book, the show features a great deal of large and encompassing images, similar to illustrations for a story or the wild imagination of a young boy. Tanks, plows, and carts all appear upon the stage, creating a show high in spectacle and theatricality. The imaginative choices used to conjure the ship scene that transports the troops and the horses to France remain particularly striking, but the pinnacle of the play of course, are the horses.
The South African based Handspring Puppet Company built several puppets for this show. At eight feet tall and ten feet long, Joey, along with his comrade Topthorn, gallop, whinny, bound, eat, breathe, and nearly sweat on the stage. These horses act as living, breathing, believable horses and not as puppets portraying horses, a true feat. Each puppet requires three performers dressed in period clothing to operate it, but the audience never really sees them, though they remain in plain sight. Their expert handling asks the audience to suspend disbelief only for a moment, for just as quickly, these horses majestically prance, playfully tease, or dedicatedly toil. Joey particularly develops as a character more than most of the humans, allowing the audience to journey with him in a child-like wonder.
War Horse seamlessly shifts through time, through a war, with a cinematic flourish. All encompassing sound design and compositions coupled with powerful lighting make an intense foundation. Honestly, this show features the finest sound mixing I have heard in a long time. Layering incidental noises over beautiful score-like compositions with a multitude of clear microphones can prove challenging, but the company delivers with the finest skill and artistry to create an entire world.
Additionally, simplistic yet telling projection design that emulates pencil sketches builds upon this. British company 59 Productions projects these animations upon what looks like a torn piece of parchment to shape the location, from a sprawling countryside to war-torn France. Languid semi-narrative dirges and ditties by Nathan Koci and Megan Loomis ground the show to a time and place while striking a chord that resonates well after we leave the theater.
The movie-like feel of the show tells a story through theater in a truly innovative way. U.S tour director Bijan Sheibani highlights the subtleties of everyday while juxtaposing them with the stark contrast of war. Due to its rampant and unavoidable intensity, this show is not recommended for children under ten. Besides recreating intense and hard-to-watch scenes of violence and the horrors of war, the show hints at broader themes of man’s cruelty and pride as well as the role chance, say the flip of a coin, plays in anyone’s life.
However, at its core War Horse tells a very simple story of a boy and his horse. Albert loves Joey; he promises they will always be together. Circumstances very clearly change that, and it is through a moment of sacrificial desperation that we see instinct act and logic lose. Albert sneaks off to the war, risking all, not telling his family, purely to find Joey and reunite to return home.
Throughout his time fighting in France, people chortle at the thought of him finding Joey, but Albert presses on. He clings to hope; the thought of Joey keeps him going like a girl back home for another soldier. War Horse presents a compelling and moving story about perseverance, and true, patient love—a timeless story so critical when everything around us seems in constant flux.
This beautiful story told at the height of artistry is a definite must-see for the brief time it performs in town. Take a loved one and share world-renowned theatre with a poignant play.
Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
War Horse plays through April 28 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State Street and plays Wed.-Sat. at 8 pm; Sat. at 2 pm; Thurs & Sun. at 1 pm. Ticket prices range. More information can be found online at www.capa.com.