The innovative puppet-based saga of a boy and his horse separated by World War I opened last night to a packed and rapt audience.
The puppets in War Horse, Mirvish Productions’ engrossing and long-awaited theatrical spectacle, start off small: a few sparrows winging through the English country air, flapping their wings atop long poles manipulated by some of the show’s many puppeteer-performers. But we’re soon introduced to the chest-high foal who’ll grow to become the massive stallion Joey; his first full-sized appearance elicited immediate applause at last night’s opening.
Unlike the famous wooden horse used to infiltrate Troy, Joey and the other equines in War Horse are mostly light frameworks that leave the mechanics of their movement (and their actions of their manipulators) visible. The puppeteers aren’t dressed in stagehand black, either, but in simple era-appropriate clothing. Stripped of the enigma, we stop wondering just how they do that and start thinking of the puppets as horses, paying no further notice to the puppeteers, who do remarkable work emulating the real thing.
And make no mistake, Joey is a horse, and just a horse (though a heroic and personable one). He’s no chatty Mister Ed, nor does he comprehend the events unfolding around him—though, via his near-phantom puppeteer-operators, his quivering ears and statuesque frame are minutely attuned to the emotions of the humans in his life. Those include his owner, Albert; Albert’s drunken father, Ted (Brad Rudy); Albert’s long-suffering mother, Rose (Tamara Bernier Evans); and the talented sketch artist Captain Nicholls (Brendan Murray), who takes Joey to the front in France for the Great War, prompting an underage Albert to enlist and follow.
Over the course of the three-hour play, which fairly gallops by, we see the horrors of war through both human and equine eyes. In Michael Morpurgo’s novel, Joey was the narrator; here, the horse has no voice, but there are many human characters whose stories are told via their interactions with Joey. Perhaps most interesting is Freidrich Mueller (Patrick Galligan), a German officer who abandons his post to assume the identity of an ambulance orderly, and save two horses from being sent back to the front. Mueller becomes so concerned with the horses’ well-being, he dwells more on their safety than his own, or that of his comrades-in-arms. A brutal fellow officer (Geoffrey Pounsett), while blackmailing Mueller, questions this: “They’re just horses—can’t you feel for your fallen comrades?” It’s an unusual flash of insight from a stock villain character, and an interesting comment on the show: how a character treats the horses is generally a bellwether for the amount of humanity he or she has left on the battlefield.
But, for the most part, the human characters in War Horse wear their hearts on their sleeves. The play is unabashedly driven by emotion, tugging on the audience like the puppets onstage; the climatic scene had most audience members in tears (Torontoist included). War Horse is top-notch spectacle theatre.