Acclaimed author Michael Morpurgo wrote the novel War Horse in 1982. He was deeply moved by stories he had learned from relatives and acquaintances about their experiences in World Wars I and II. When he moved to Devon in the mid-1970's he became interested in the compelling stories of the horses that served in wartime. It is known that tens of millions of men lost their lives or were wounded on all sides during World War I. The cost to the civilian population was equally devastating. Through conversations with local Devon villagers, Mr. Morpurgo learned of the loss of the horses pressed into service. 8 million horses died serving in the Great War. Used as cavalry mounts and to pull ambulances and guns, the British army alone used approximately 1 million horses in the war effort. Of those million, 62,000 returned home, the rest died or were sold after the war, usually to be used in the devastated areas of France and Belgium as meat. Mr. Morpurgo made the bold decision to tell the story of World War I from the point of view of one of those horses. By doing so, he was able to tell a balanced story of the war from the point of view of the British and German forces and the French civilians caught in the middle. The difficulty becomes how does one translate such a work to the stage. The unbelievable National Theatre of Great Britain's production of War Horse, adapted by Nick Stafford, resoundingly answers that with an absolute masterpiece of theatrical staging.
How on earth do you adapt a novel in which your main protagonist is a horse? The script by Nick Stafford opens up the story to include not only Joey, the beautiful thoroughbred and draft mix who is the focal point, but also the coming of age of the young Devon farm boy who loves him, Albert Narracott. This is not just a story of World War I, it is truly the story of Albert and his family and how they deal with the difficulties in life. Albert's father, Ted is an alcoholic who is bound and determined to prove himself to be as successful as his brother, Arthur. Ted was unable to serve in the Boer War and has a huge chip on his shoulder in the mistaken belief that because he stayed home no one in the village respects him. Ted is a foolish man and risks his family's security by outbidding Arthur in a horse auction for young Joey the colt, but imperils the family farm as he spends the mortgage money to buy the horse.
It is through this foolish act that Joey and the young Albert meet. Through gentle persuasion Albert gains Joey's trust and trains him and soon they are galloping the countryside. Arthur cannot stand that Ted bested him and by plying him with alcohol gets him to bet that Joey can learn to plow a field in one week's time. Albert is furious with his father, but agrees to try on the condition that if he succeeds then Albert will become Joey's owner. Yet, Ted betrays his son when shortly after the contest, Ted learns that the British Army will pay 100 pounds for an officer's cavalry mount and sells Joey. Joey is sent to to France where he will see the carnage of war, first as a British cavalry horse, then in the ensuing chaos he ends up on the German side, alongside another British horse, Topthorn. Respite is little and Joey sees and suffers many torments. Meanwhile, young Albert runs away from home, lies about his age and joins the army to find his beloved horse. Will Joey and Albert ever be united again?
What is utterly amazing is how the scale of this story, from the rolling farmland of Devon to No Man's Land with its tanks, machine guns and barbed wire unfold upon the Vivian Beaumont stage. The set design by Rae Smith is deceptively simple. Utilizing the Vivian Beaumont's thrust stage to great effect, the few set pieces are easily recognizable whether in the trenches at the front or the Narracott farm. There is a large scrim-like gash across the top of the stage. Audience members are left to ponder why it is shaped like it is until the moment that Albert runs away to join the war. Upon this scrim projections of marvelous sketches are drawn in front of our eyes showing everything from the Devon countryside to the growth of Albert and Joey's bond to the haunting skies over a battlefield. Rae Smith also designed the wonderful sketches and the perfect costuming.
Adrian Sutton has created a stunning score reminiscent of the time period. The score is equally intimate as needed and at times lushly epic to accompany the scale of the war scenes. John Tams original songs are timeless and could easily be of the time period. Those songs are poignantly sung by Liam Robinson and Kate Pfaffl. The direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris emphasizes the emotions inherent in the story. Toby Sedgwick's movement and his choreography for the horse sequences must be witnessed in person to see their effectiveness.
That brings us to the horses. Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company has created utterly amazing life-size puppets to portray Joey, Topthorn and all of the other horses in the production. Each horse takes three actors to bring to life. Due to the exertion required, multiple actors portray the horses. At the performance this reviewer attended Joey was portrayed as a Foal by Stephen James Anthony, David Pegram and Leenya Rideout, Joey as a stallion by Jeslyn Kelly, Jonathan David Martin, Prentice Onayemi, Topthorn by Joel Reuben Ganz, Tom Lee and Jonathan Christopher MacMillan, Coco by Joby Earle and Enrico D. Wey and Heine by Sanjit De Silva and Bhavesh Patel. The performance by these actors requires a Herculean effort over the course of the 2 hour and 40 minute running time. These actors more than deserve their in costume and out of costume curtain calls.
And what a performance it is. These puppets are steps beyond the most effective puppetry that used on on the stage (yes, including The Lion King) These horses not only must move in a stylized, yet realistic fashion but they manipulate their ears, mouths and tails, must be able to bear the weight of the human characters and they breathe. It is incredible to watch and draws applause from the audience at moments early in the performance, but quickly the audience forgets the artistry of the puppets and accepts them as the leading characters of the story.
As for the human characters the ensemble is a wonderful cohesive unit, whether portraying soldiers, villagers or, upon occasion the fences of a horse pen or the barbed wire of No Man's Land. Outstanding performances are given by Boris McGiver as the foolish alcoholic Ted Narracott and Alyssa Breshnahan as Albert's mother, Rose, the steady rock of the family. Peter Hermann plays Hauptmann Friedrich Muller, the German officer who catches Joey and Topthorn after a brutal battle who tries to keep his humanity by saving these horses and himself with ambulance duty. It is a deeply moving performance. Mr. Hermann's Friedrich sees the futility of war and longs to find some semblance of normalcy long enough to survive the war and get home to his family. As the young French girl Emilie that Friedrich, Joey and Topthorn winter with, young Madeleine Rose Yen delivers a sweetly poignant performance.
This is a story of a boy and his horse. As the boy, Albert, who must learn the cruelties of the world through his foolish father's behavior and later during his insane decision to go to war to find his horse, Seth Numrich delivers a nuanced emotional performance. It is through Mr. Numrich that the puppet Joey becomes a living horse in the audience's eyes. We love Joey because Albert loves Joey. We root for their reunion, but the journey is long and we must witness, along with Albert the terror of war and the senseless losses along the way. We are invested in this story because of the performances of Mr. Numrich and the actors who bring Joey to life.
This production premiered at the Royal National-Olivier Theatre in South Bank, London in 2007 and transferred to the West End in 2009. May this production, with its American cast, enjoy an equally long run on Broadway.
For more information on the writing of War Horse - the novel, the creation of the horse puppets and additional background on World War I, please pick up a copy of the Lincoln Center Review in the lobby of the theater for a suggested donation of $1.00.
Parental advisory: While this play is based on a children's novel, bear in mind that it depicts scenes of war. It contains gun shots and strobe lighting and very loud sound effects. There are also a few instances of profanity in the context of battle scenes. Some young children may be upset by the deaths of humans and horses alike.
The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of War Horse is playing at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. For tickets and additional performance information please visit www.telecharge.com or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, 800-447-7400.