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War Horse: A beautiful, poetic, traumatic love story

War Horse: A beautiful, poetic, traumatic love story

The opening of a dazzling production of ‘War Horse’ in South Africa sends J. BROOKS SPECTOR off to contemplate the artistic memory of World War I, now a hundred years gone by - and to enjoy the astonishing puppetry of the horses in this show.

World War I has got a big bum rap – at least in comparison to how the war that came a generation later has been treated artistically. If World War II gains a measure of heroism and honour (save for furious, funny works like Catch 22 or Slaughterhouse-Five); by contrast, poets, artists, and writers have portrayed “The War to End All War” as little more than a stupid, senseless slaughter of millions, heaped up by the vanities and obdurate stupidity of emperors, politicians and generals.

The phrase, “lions led by donkeys” has come to categorise the sacrifice made by soldiers and civilians alike – and the million or more horses that died as well – as a result of the dangerous, foolish decisions by military leaders. At the beginning of the war, the warring armies even deployed cavalry charges, despite the fact that they would be riding against machine gun fire. Throughout the war, on all sides, great herds of horses were essential to every single army involved in this war for the transport of supplies of all types, for moving artillery into place, and conveying the troops, the wounded, and then, finally, the millions of corpses to their destinations.

Poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen depicted the futility of all that death in the trenches; John Singer Sargent painted the mindless destruction of people from poison gas attacks; and George Grosz portrayed the disfigured and the angry revenge seekers in baleful conjunction. Jaroslav Hasek, in his novel, The Good Soldier Svejk, depicted soldiers who had managed to avoid the senseless killing only by engaging in a kind of sullen passive resistance to the insanity of their officers’ orders. And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn crafted his vast documentary novel, August 1914, to foreshadow the ghastly horrors still to come, even as Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front offered death as the only end to a meaningless struggle on the battlefield.

The cinema has rarely remembered this conflict through any better optic either. Stanley Kubrick’s unrelenting Paths of Glory offered a French officer who finds the only humanity left in the war when he has gone to be with the common soldiers when deserters from the slaughter have been shot for their supposed cowardice. Meanwhile, Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” has officers who know they are sending men to useless deaths, but do it anyway because that is what they must do. And then, of course, there was that controversial, over-the-top theatrical send-up of the Great War, Oh, What a Lovely War! This early 1960s stage work actually presaged the even greater cynicism novels, films and plays would eventually bring to bear in their dissections of the Vietnam War and so many other wars after that one.

And now, the British theatrical sensation, War Horse, has arrived in South Africa, seven years after it first appeared on stage in London. And this work, too, steps firmly in the ideological footsteps of all those other works to decry the cost, the follies and the ultimate destructive waste and futility of warfare.

In brief summary, War Horse has been drawn out of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel that is first set in the Devon countryside and then shifts to the muck and death of the trenches of the British zone of the Western Front during World War I – a conflict that, coincidentally, began one hundred years and three months ago. The story is centred on the bond between a horse, Joey, and his friend and owner, Albert Narracott (played by Lee Armstrong). Albert’s father (played by David Fleeshman) first impetuously buys the foal at auction at a cost he can ill-afford, and then sells Joey, despite his promise to Albert, to the British Army for a large sum, just as the army is gearing up for combat in France. When the horse has been dispatched to the front as an officer’s cavalry mount, the horrified Albert enlists as soon as the army will take him so that he can go on his quest to be reunited with his beloved Joey.

The play then follows the dual stories of Joey’s tortures as he is eventually turned into a draft horse to pull howitzers for the German army and then as he is wounded in an escape through the barbed wire of no man’s land between the warring armies. Meanwhile, Albert must partake in terrifying night attacks, face artillery barrages, and then, eventually, suffer a gas attack before (attention, readers: spoiler alert follows) the two wounded, traumatised friends can achieve a kind of secular redemption and reunion as the show draws to its cathartic end.

On stage, the show uses a setting that is mostly scattered bits of wreckage on the Western Front or long poles to establish the fences of the Narracott farm or the yearling auction, the techniques of “poor theatre” of drama theorist Jerzy Gortowski. Alex Sims directs this play for the touring production. Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris originally directed War Horse for its UK runs from an adaptation of the novel by Nick Stafford.

The stunning backdrop was designed by Rae Smith, but to many local theatre goers it may also seem to have a fascinating family resemblance to some of the work of South African artist William Kentridge. It is electronically projected on a screen that looks like a wide strip of paper roughly ripped from a giant notebook. It seems simple but it is both appropriately austere and terrifying in its immediacy as the play goes forward.

Haunting vocals and a subtle instrumentation combine in a musical texture by Adrian Sutton for the interludes between various events that is eerily reminiscent of the folk song elements used to such haunting effect in works by composers Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Aaron Copland. And “flash-bang” explosions and sudden blazing spotlights complete the sonic and visual effects that make this work such an astonishing piece of theatre that it seems to take one right into the trenches, but, fortunately, without the muck and filth.

But of course the real stars of this show, well beyond the actors, the script, or the staging are the animals. Actor and vaudeville veteran WC Fields famously advised aspiring actors never to come on stage after children or animal acts. And in this show, the horses, and a goose, steal the show, just as Fields had warned neophyte actors all those years ago. Designed by two of South Africa’s own, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler at their Handspring Puppet Theatre, Joey, his equine best friend Topthorn, and Joey as a colt seem thoroughly alive, even though the audience can see the machinery, the cogs, the struts and even the spaces inside their bodies.

These characters are definitively not the Disneyised, anthropomorphised animals that behave like humans, but with lots of fur and big ears.  Even the ears and tails are convincing on these horses. The colt is unsteady early on on his gawky legs, while the adult horses have a grace and spirit that mimics the real deal in ways both uncanny and nearly impossible to explain without actually seeing them on stage. They whinny, neigh and nuzzle – or sometimes even try to bite – their human keepers, even as they have been dragged off to a war they clearly have had nothing to do with starting. And a farmyard goose, ill tempered and something of a tsotsi when it can get away with it, makes a gallant attempt to steal a scene or two in War Horse as well.

In speaking about Joey, New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley had cooed, “It’s swoon time, ladies and gentlemen. Joey, the current marquee topper at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, is the kind of matinee idol New York hasn’t seen in ages. Tall, high-strung and handsome, with chestnut hair and eyes that catch the light, this strapping leading man is so charismatic you can imagine fans of both sexes lining up at the stage door with bouquets. Or maybe lumps of sugar and handfuls of hay… He is, it seems, one of those fabled stars of the stage who comes fully alive only when an audience is watching. Which, of course, makes him all the more captivating.”

The puppetry technique on stage owes much to Jones and Kohler’s deep understanding of Asian puppetry traditions, especially Japanese bunraku drama, right down to their use of kuroko (literally “dark children” in Japanese), those dark-costumed manipulators of the puppets who do not even attempt to hide themselves from the audience. In this show, the illusions of life with Joey and Topthorn are so vivid one rarely even notices the puppeteers, except when they also take on roles as soldier-extras in the drama as it unfolds.

And when the British Army’s tank – in a skeletal, semi-abstract form – makes its sudden appearance on stage, even if you know it is coming, it is a terrifying monster of a thing. On stage, this tank – closely resembling one of the original British Mark I tank models – seems nearly prehistoric, or perhaps even satanic. And if it horrifies the horses and men alike, it is easy to see why.

Ultimately, War Horse is about basics like love, loyalty and redemption – as it speaks to bonds between humans and their animals that are instantly understandable by anybody who has ever lost a pet – or a friend. Is this play perfect? Not quite. While the book and the Steven Spielberg cinematic treatment of this same story clarify the subplot of the French farm girl who has come into possession of Joey in the midst of the wartime carnage (although the movie seemed to glory in some gratuitous violence), the stage version can leave audiences wondering just why this element has become so prominent in this dramatic retelling of the story. And the British and German officers, both, can seem a bit too baffoonishly Colonel Blimp-like in their delusions, follies and general strutting about on stage, whenever the focus falls on them, rather than on Joey, Topthorn or his forlorn friend, Albert.

But, despite these minor flaws, and even though the story really is just ultimately a simple “boy gets horse, boy and horse become fast friends, horse is sent away, boy then goes on a quest to find his horse, and both man and horse go through unimaginable horrors until the final moments for their reunion”, it is, nevertheless, a magnificent theatrical phenomenon, courtesy of those animate puppets.

Go and see it, but bring lots of tissues – you’ll need them. DM

– – – – – – – –

War Horse is on stage at the Teatro at Montecasino until 30 November. Thereafter, its Cape Town season runs from 5 December. Because of the intensity of this show, it may not be suitable for young children.

Read more:

  • A Boy and His Steed, Far From Humane Society at the New York Times
  • Paul Fussell, warrior against war, died on May 23rd, aged 88 (Fussell wrote the definitive study on the lingering impacts of World War I on the modern imagination) at the Economist
  • War Horse: Horse play is no puppet show in the Telegraph
  • ON THE STAGE: War Horse — a gilded triumph in Business Day

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