When it reaches the screen as a Steven Spielberg movie, “War Horse” will have real, live animals to represent the 8 million horses that were killed in World War I or sold to French butchers at the end. But no one who sees the National Theater of Great Britain’s haunting stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel about a 16-year-old farmboy who follows his beloved horse into war will ever forget Joey — a puppet fabricated of wood and mesh and metal and manipulated by three human puppeteers, but so full of life you’d swear he had a soul.
Since this story was written for children, the plot is plain and the emotions are primal — the better to rip your heart out.
A sensitive boy named Albert (wonderfully delicate work from Seth Numrich) instantly bonds with the hunter colt that his father (Boris McGiver) impetuously buys at auction and cruelly turns into a dray horse. When this drunken lout later sells Joey to the British cavalry, Albert enlists in the infantry and goes to France, making his way from one battlefield to another in search of Joey, who survives through the working skills he acquired as a farm horse. Four years later, in the devastated wasteland of the Somme Valley, Albert finally finds Joey, no longer fit for hauling heavy weapons and human corpses, and about to be put to death.
That’s the simple story, which, for all its ferocity, is not so much an anti-war play as a play about the false and brutal lessons that boys learn from their fathers (and the father figures who govern them), and must unlearn at their own peril. But the telling of this age-old tale is pure theatrical magic in this story-theater-like production staged for an all-American company by Marianne Elliott (an associate director of the National) and Tom Morris (a.d. of Bristol Old Vic) and given its heart by the magnificent horsemanship of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, creative masterminds of the Handspring Puppet Company.
The vast stage of the Vivian Beaumont undergoes a terrible transformation (in the hands of scenic designer Rae Smith and the projection house of 59 Prods.) as the soft green hills of the English countryside give way to the blue-black skies and blood-soaked earth of the battlefields in France. (Paule Constable did the extraordinary lighting.) “Don’t show any fear or pity,” the officer riding Joey advises his cavalry when they arrive at the western front and encounter their first group of wounded soldiers and exhausted horses — puppets all.
But pity and fear are the only emotional options when Joey and his equine comrades, led by a majestic black stallion named Topthorn, obediently ride into this nightmarish landscape and begin falling to the modern weapons of barbed wire, automatic machine guns and tanks. With the exception of two bothersome folk singers wailing loudly about what we can plainly see, the hellish sounds of war (Christopher Shutt’s contribution) are articulate accompaniment to the savage battle scenes.
Some vestiges of humanity do survive in this dreadful place. The boyish exchanges between Albert and the young private (David Pegram) hunkered down with him in the trenches are sweet and sad. Even more compelling are the desperate efforts of the German field officer (played with exquisite feeling by Peter Hermann) to save Topthorn, the great war horse abandoned in battle.
The astonishing thing about all these life-sized horses — the beautiful beasts who go off to war and the emaciated creatures who collapse in the mud or emerge in tatters at the end — is the source of life that animates them. Amazingly, none of that vitality is reflected in their eyes, which are flat and inexpressive against the transparent fabrics that cover the sculptural complexity of their visible skeletons.
Under the directorial hand of Toby Sedgwick, the horse-handling puppeteers (three to each horse) bring them to life through movement alone, in ways that are both dramatically dynamic and incredibly subtle. Topthorn is fearsome in battle, and from the very first moment we meet Joey he’s as warm-blooded and full of personality as any creature alive. It’s a life that manifests itself in the tossing head, the heaving chest, the twitching ears, the quivering flanks — the very beat of his heart. His very big heart.