This past Sunday night I was perusing through possible available tickets when I happened upon a great find. “War Horse” tickets for 16 pounds each! I was so excited I quickly alerted my two roommates (both avidly watching Downton Abbey on Netflix) and we booked three tickets for the next night. Now I’ve seen War Horse the movie and absolutely loves it. I also saw a performance of the broadway show on the Tonys one year so I knew to expect great things from this show. For those of you unfamiliar with the storyline, it follows the adventures of a boy (Albert) and his horse (Joey) beginning in Devon, England 1912 and following both characters as they individually experience WWI. Personally, I think the story is touching and inspirational, a bit sad a times but ultimately a beautiful journey whether on the big screen or in the theatre.
WH was playing at the New London Theatre just off the Covent Gardens Underground station. Thankfully, a lot easier to find than “mariner.” The only problem my roommates and I encountered was walking down a rather skinny road to meet the WAR HORSE sign above a building that said “closed.” We were puzzled for about 2 full minutes when we finally realized the closed building was actually an Indian restaurant and the theatre was just around the corner! I remembered to take a picture for all of you to see the venue. Notice the particularly jolly man to my right. He smiled so hard for the camera that I thought it necessary to include him here.
As I mentioned before, the tickets were very inexpensive and partly due to the fact that they were “safety rail in sight line” seats. Being the poor college student I am, I decided I would rather see WH through a safety rail than not at all. I ended up being entirely happy with my decision. Although the view was partially obstructed by a gate, I was in the first row and could easily look over it to see the hustle and bustle below. I took a picture of the stage to metaphorically “set the stage” for you so you can understand what I am talking about when I talk about the setting. This play used the setting in lots of different and effective ways portraying overlap in time and place, and creating special effects. Also, the infamous costumes/puppetry of the performance was probably one of the coolest things I have seen in my life.
The play started out with a small foal (baby horse) puppet being handled by three different puppeteers. It was very life-like with the ears flicking side to side, occasional nickering and quivering of its hindquarters (for those of you who don’t understand horse terms: basically it acted like a real horse). The only thing that bothered me about the foal was that its knees did not bend like that of a real horse and therefore was that much less realistic. But, as I saw was the baby horse would turn into, I soon understood why the legs had to be that way. The baby horse, of course, turns into a full grown horse (Joey). This transition was done really well with a bit of smoke, a dimming of light, and a lot of sound. Big Joey was magnificent. Never have I ever wanted to be a puppeteer so badly in my life. Joey was life sized with three puppeteers controlling him. And.. as you might have guessed, his knees bent! He walked, he galloped and he even reared up and pawed the air like a real horse. People could even ride him! It was awesome in every sense of the word. There were other horse too. A HUGE black one called Topthorn, and a couple of extra horses present in big war scenes. It was really interesting how the puppeteers were presented to the audience. 2 out if three were part of the horse, but the one controlling the head looked kind of like a groomsman holding the horse’s head. Joey’s groom was dressed like a man from the country in reddish browns that matched the horse. Topthorn’s groom was dressed all in black with a hat like an army general’s hat. This differentiation allowed the audience to get more of a feel for the personalities of the horses. There were other puppets as well. People with birds atop swooping wires ran about stage, as the puppets wings pumped up and down. There was also a jolly old goose who was wheeled about and made for some nice comic relief in the middle of a pretty emotionally heavy story.
The stage effects and setting were pretty minimalistic, considering. But they were also extremely effective in portraying time and space. Ensemble characters would carry long sticks around and use them as a makeshift “fence” leaning on it, heckling from it, etc. Also, as you can see from my picture of the stage, there was a weird horizontal, icicle looking thing. This was a perfect piece of scenery because it was used in so many diverse ways. Projections were screened onto it, both moving projections and sketch-like scenery projections. It was also used to hang a window and a door for when characters came into a scene and left. Just a window and a door amidst air, but the point came across very well. I also liked the way the characters themselves were placed on the stage at parts, each representing different places a the same time. At one point there was Albert’s parents stage right, Albert stage left and Joey center stage, all obviously in different places (also made clearer by lighting and verbal cues). This scene was powerful because of the strong emotion of longing coming from all the characters to be together. Having them be feet away from each other technically, but many many miles away from each other in the story was a great way to increase audience tension and investment into the character’s predicaments. Having them be so close and yet so far increased the sadness of the situation and made the audience (at least in my case) strongly root for the reunification of all the characters in the end.
There were also various special effects throughout the play. A revolving circle in the center of the stage made the scenes of horses running or pulling things more believable and was cool to see from different angles. Flashing lights and smoke paired with ominous music made certain scenes very dramatic. Also, there was a HUGE tank manned by 6 people that was essentially a giant seesaw but commanded presence with its size, menacing shape and slow calculated movements. This show was extremely enjoyable to watch and I would recommend it over and over again. This is not just a story about a boy and a horse, but transforms into a unique and wonderful experience for everyone to treasure.