War Horse and the power of imagination

War Horse (film)
War Horse (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe some of you have been fortunate enough to see the theatrical production of War Horse, (which is on in New York at Lincoln Center until January 6.) Based on a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, and made into a film last year, this play won five Tonys, including Best Play for 2011. It’s also playing in Melbourne and Toronto and a German-language version opens in Berlin in 2013.

I finally saw it this week, grateful that we have online access to discount tickets — my front-row balcony seat cost me $43 instead of the usual $125.

It’s hard to know where to start to praise this intense and astonishing piece of work. It’s definitely not for young children; I saw a young girl, maybe seven or eight, clinging to her father’s coat in the lobby afterward and knew exactly how she felt.

It is a play about war, and there’s much violence, and gunfire and exploding bombs and crows feasting on corpses, all staples of conflict but hardly what a young child is eager to see or able to handle.

For those who don’t know the work, it’s the story of Joey, a roan horse bought at a county fair and sold to a military officer.  In WWI 18 million horses were killed — but Joey somehow survives. The scenes where he leaps a barbed wire fence or is confronted by a tank are heart-stoppingly dramatic. By the end, when Joey is finally reunited with the boy who loves him, there isn’t a dry eye in the house and snuffles sound from every seat.

Joey, and all the horses in the show, are played by three men, two inside an astonishing construction of cane and painted nylon mesh and one standing outside, manipulating the head and neck.

The power of imagination, somehow, makes the men invisible, even as they remain on-stage whenever the horses do. The puppets, made by the Handspring Theater of South Africa, become snortingly, ground-pawingly, tail-twitchingly alive and the three men essentially disappear. One of the most moving moments, for me, was the death of one of the horses — as the three men silently and slowly withdraw from its shell, its spirit leaves the stage, and us, behind.

Here’s an 18-minute TED talk about them, with a visit from Joey.

One of the great luxuries of living near New York City is easy access to some of the world’s best plays, musicals and concerts. Thanks to my husband’s job, we can get discount tickets whenever they’re offered, and the seats are usually amazingly good, like fifth or eighth row of the orchestra.

I love the imagination, training, research and talent it takes to create these powerful illusions: lighting, costume, music, actors, writing, staging, direction, sets. I’m incredibly lucky we can, occasionally, affordably and regularly savor such skill only an hour from home. It’s one the reasons I wanted to come to New York, and why I’ve stayed.

What’s the most memorable production you’ve ever seen?

16 thoughts on “War Horse and the power of imagination

  1. Nemesis

    Oba Oba. Original Broadway. ’88.

    Prurient, raucous, licentious, libidinous fun. A musical bacchanalia.

    I must go to São Paulo one day.

    1. Nemesis

      Ok, Herbert Von Karajan’s final performance with the Vienna Philharmonic [Vienna ’87] was pretty good, too. But he was wearing tails… and so was the Orchestra. Not a boa in sight.

  2. I’m so thrilled you saw War Horse and loved it as well, I’ve been raving about it for over a year now to anyone who will listen and most of my acquaintance are sick of my praise. I think it’s probably the most technically innovative theatrical production I’ve ever seen, and you’re absolutely right about how three puppeteers manage to be entirely invisible to the audience – and about the lack of dry eyes! J. and I walked out onto Drury Lane awestruck (and sniffling).

    I once got to see Dame Aileen Atkins perform in London in The Female of the Species, a play about the triumphs and pitfalls of feminism, and my mother took me to the Russian National Ballet’s Swan Lake when I was young. Those three productions are the best things I’ve every seen! Runner up is our beloved/hated Lady Mary Crawley Michelle Dockery in her breakout role in Pygmalion at the Old Vic – although I thought she was rather dull compared to the man who played her father.

    1. What a great panoply!

      I think my other peak experiences were (shamelessly) performing (yes) with the National Ballet of Canada in Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center with Nureyev (probably worth a blog post) and a few Broadway productions — South Pacific was great, as was August Osage County and Janet McTeer in Mary Stuart. That was an unforgettable performance, and I went on the recommendation of a friend. I was lucky enough to see lots of ballet (as I reviewed it for a few years)…one of my favorite pieces of music goes with Serenade, by Balanchine.

  3. I saw War Horse on the London Stage in 2010 and loved every minute of it. I would agree it might be too much for young children, but it certainly appealed to my imagination. I was totally absorbed!

    I’m not sure I have a favorite production, but I’ve been fortunate to see quite a few in the historic theatre houses of both London and New York along with traveling productions that came to Atlanta during my years there.

    My first theatre experience was on my 12th birthday when my father took me to see Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972. I still have my program from that show and the ‘Superstar’ album given to me by my dad, is the only bit of vinyl I kept when I got rid of my albums in 2006.

    1. Oooh, yes! JC Supertstar…I remember it very well. I still have all my vinyl, and miss it desperately. Don’t have the spare $$ to rebuild or buy a new system to listen to it, but I can’t wait to hear all my music again.

  4. I haven’t seen War Horse, but my boys have. Right after my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, she ordered tickets for them, knowing it was something they both wanted to see. It was a lovely final gesture in a complicated relationship. It made me happy to see your review, reinforcing this is something that will stay with them, leaving a positive memory.

  5. I experienced War Horse in Toronto this past spring. An astonishing production and very moving. Being a horse woman and understanding the special bond between horse and owner/rider as I do I can very much relate to the emotions at play here. I’m going away for three weeks and whenever I travel leaving my horse behind is rough. … Thanks for sharing your experience of War Horse. … Be well, Dorothy 🙂

  6. I saw the production here in Toronto (on stage as well until Jan 6, with some discount tickets to be had) and loved it. I too was in awe with how quickly the horse puppeteers ‘disappeared’ from my vision as my observing mind was drawn in by the character and movements of the horse. Fantastic!

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