Nick Stafford’s adaptation of the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo opened in London in 2007, and in New York in 2011; it won six Olivier awards and Five Tonys (for direction, scene design, sound, lighting, choreography and best play) as well as many other awards.
It is surely a design triumph, with much credit going to the Handspring Puppet Company, who are responsible for the magnificent horses at the center of this fable.The story begins at a horse auction in rural Devonshire before the First World War. Young Albert’s father outbids his own brother for a beautiful colt—foolishly spending the mortgage money to do so. (There is much bad blood between the father and the uncle.) Albert, of course, is the only person able to train this spirited animal—and of course the two fall in love. It is this romance between the boy and the horse that we follow through several hellish years of The Great War. The horse, named Joey, is of mixed lineage: his sire was a thoroughbred hunter while his dam was a draft horse; in his travails Joey shows both the nobility of spirit and the true grit and stamina derived from these bloodlines. He’s grown into a magnificent animal, and when war breaks out Albert’s father impulsively sells Joey into service in the Army.
I won’t dwell on the plot, because the plot is all too predictable. We know immediately how a bet on Joey’s trainability will come out; we know immediately who’s going to die in the war; there is never the slightest doubt that Albert and Joey will be reunited. So this is not a play about plot. Nor is it a play about character, for there’s very little complexity in any of the people we meet; indeed stereotypes abound—the feckless, irresponsible drunkard father; the loving, struggling mother; the pompous, prosperous uncle; the ramrod-stiff British officers; and a drill sergeant (Sgt. Thunder) straight out of the Realm of Ideal Forms.
No, this is a play about spectacle, and it’s very much at home on the vast stage at the Fox. The cast of forty-five includes thirteen puppeteers who manage quite wonderful great horses made of cane and leather and fabric. Their artificiality is never concealed, yet their movement—in trotting and running, in a breathtaking cavalry charge, in the grueling hauling of artillery pieces, in their very breathing—is all so very realistic. The puppeteers also handle a few flitting swallows, a goose (which becomes a sort of running gag), and some very disconcerting vultures feeding on corpses on the battle-field.
Over and around the action there is strongly—sometimes violently effective lighting and sound. It draws us deep into the explosions and flares of battle. Rear projected on a sort of rag of a cyclorama are scenes of the English countryside, cities, landing vessels, and vivid scenes of battle. Music occasionally arises—there’s a sort of balladeer and an accordionist observing the action; there are gorgeous massed songs of the people; there is much recorded music rather like a film score.
So "War Horse" is a treat for the senses. But as a drama it’s rather thin. It was originally a children’s novel, and it suffers from the failings so common in children’s literature by writers who don’t trust a child’s ability to deal with moral or psychological complexity. Albert is an attractive lad, but he’s simply a pure soul who loves his horse. The only really interesting character is the German Captain who decides to swap uniforms with a dead ambulance driver and opt out of battle. Only he asks a moral question. No one else changes. And the only question posed to the audience is: why in the world does mankind keep re-inventing this hideous nightmare of war?