Now playing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway.
Few theatrical experiences are as awkward as a tearjerker that fails to jerk tears from you. In the case of War Horse, a play that attempts to dramatize all the suffering of the First World War through the suffering of a single horse, I’m prepared to concede that my own discomfort around horses (they might be beautiful from a distance, but they’re intimidating and off-puttingly alien up close) couldn’t possibly give me much of an affinity for this material. But I still think the problem transcends my own prejudices because, ironically, the problem is not the horse. All of the animals in War Horse are represented onstage by life-size puppets so gracefully naturalistic and expressive that you needn’t be one of those inexplicable horse-lovers to find them affecting.
No, the problem isn’t the three-dimensional animals but the one-dimensional humans, particularly the horse-besotted hero who doesn’t seem to care a whit about the death and anguish of any of the people he meets, not compared to the loss of his goddamn horse. His astonishing lack of empathy poisons everything. It makes me recoil from the play’s human lead and instinctively resist the animal lead, so when that final lachrymose climax rolls around, I’m more annoyed than touched.
If it weren’t for the puppetry, War Horse would be an utter failure. Instead, the puppetry of the production is so haunting and powerful that it redeems the play to a great extent. I don’t know quite what to make of that, but there it is: the spectacle of the production is so artful that it makes a flat, treacly, ill-conceived play worth seeing.
Like Steven Spielberg’s movie (which I didn’t see and never cared to), the play adapts a British children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. The playbill notes that it has been adapted by Nick Stafford “in association with Handspring Puppet Company,” which seems a fair indication of just how intrinsic the puppetry is not only to the production but to the play—the very text—itself. The “lead” horse, Joey, and another horse in the British cavalry, Topthorn, are both represented by impressive physical models hand-operated by three puppeteers: two manipulating the legs, one the head and neck, and all providing whinnies and nickers and snorts and the like. Perhaps this sounds cumbersome, but the puppet is so flexible in its movements—and the puppeteers so perfectly choreographed in theirs—that both “horses” seem like living creatures. Even though the puppeteers are right there onstage, completely undisguised, you find yourself watching the faux equines, not the humans, for their reactions. The “horses” are easily the most compelling, charismatic actors in the whole production.
To be fair, the human actors really aren’t given much to work with, but that doesn’t stop some of them from turning in actively tiresome performances. Andrew Durand gives Albert Narracott, the naive country boy who falls hard for Joey, a ridiculously melodramatic habit of flinging himself to the ground and a petulant whine that would make Luke Skywalker roll his eyes in derision. (You might find that comparison jarring, but I’ve always hated Luke, whom I previously had considered the absolute nadir of male adolescent mewling. Luke, I think you’ve been replaced!) Not much more convincing (or palatable) is David Lansbury as Friedrich Müller, a German deserter who shares Albert’s obnoxious, histrionic disposition. Both Durand and Lansbury seem to pitch every line in a rushed, breathless shriek. I suppose it’s possible they’ve been directed to act this way, for some mysterious reason, but many of the supporting actors manage to turn in performances that don’t inspire unfavorable comparisons to Mark Hamill, so then again, maybe it’s just them.*
But ultimately, the play’s core flaw is its own insistence on privileging the suffering of horses over the suffering of people. I know that Joey can be read as a symbol—”never such innocence, never before or since” and all that—but that doesn’t make the story any easier to take when Albert reacts to the news that all the enlistees from his village may have been killed in a doomed cavalry charge by whinging about his horse. When a sadistic soldier—a German soldier, no less—has to act as the voice of reason, pointing out that a supposedly sympathetic character is ignoring the human misery around him in his sentimental fixation on animals, then something is seriously out of whack.
I’m not dismissing Joey’s plight. The use of cavalry horses is disturbing even when they were strategically effective, and it’s even more disturbing when they’re obsolete yet used nonetheless, charging obediently into the oblivion of machine-gun fire and barbed wire because tactics haven’t adapted to those new technologies. But I would argue that people’s pain in such situations is exacerbated by their awareness of the pointlessness and futility of it all. Part of what makes the First World War so appalling is that people were being forced to face terrifying new mechanized horrors (machine guns, poison gas) using outdated tactics and with insufficient defenses—and all because of a complicated tangle of alliances that affected everyday people not a jot. Surely a war of attrition is more cruel and frightful when you understand that’s what’s happening, that your death will serve no greater purpose, that your service as a soldier has no more strategic significance than a single mark in a body tally.
Joey can’t understand that because he’s a horse. Albert can’t understand that because he’s a shockingly immature little dunce. So why are they our entry points into contemplating this war? The artistry of the Handspring Puppet Company’s artistry can do more than I could have imagined, but it can’t get me past that fundamental roadblock.
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* Edited to add that Sean pointed out that this is a rather cheap shot at Mark Hamill. As annoying as Luke is, the blame for that is probably best placed on George Lucas, who has a truly remarkable gift of drawing stultifying performances from otherwise talented actors. Sean is a big fan of Hamill’s voice acting as the Joker in various animated shows and video games, and he’s right, Hamill makes a delectably creepy Joker. So please consider my derision pointed entirely at Luke, not at the guy unfortunate enough to have to play him.