When it comes to visual spectacle, a production on the level of War Horse might come along only once in a decade.
Though the show, based on a 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, is a stage musical, it comes off more like a movie – so much so that, four years after it was adapted for the stage in 2007, Steven Spielberg adapted it into an Academy Award-nominated film.
The play, written by Nick Stafford and originally produced by the National Theatre in London, puts something on the stage that makes the production feel cinematic. The magic ingredient is not difficult to identify: It’s Joey, the 8-foot tall horse who is, ostensibly, the main character.
When baby Joey first trots out on the stage, he is clearly a puppet. But as War Horse continues, you may begin to wonder if that is the best word to describe something so life-like.
The creature was designed by the South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Company, and the horse’s movement and expression is so real, “puppet” almost seems a crude word for it. Three people perform the horse choreography in this touring production: Christopher Mai in the Head, Harlan Bengel in the Heart and Rob Laquita in the Hind. Each of them controls different aspects of Joey to create a full emotional spectrum when they work together.
“We’ve been doing this for so long that technically executing it is second nature,” Laquita says. “Honestly, the most challenging part is for all three of us to be one character.”
The trio can’t turn around and look at each other on stage, and they certainly can’t talk. Three people acting the same part simultaneously is a feat, with or without the horse. Mai, Bengel and Laquita carry Joey with such grace, though, that it is very easy to forget they’re there at all.
The way War Horse is staged, there are no curtains between scene changes and, often, no lighting cues. The link between scenes is the horse.
“Joey will be standing on stage literally doing nothing and then just shift from one posture to another, and then we’re in another place,” Bengel says. “It could be that Chris raises the head or Rob flicks the tail, and you instantly know we’re somewhere else. We show the audience that the scene has changed.”
Aside from the amazing Joey, War Horse is very much a boy-and-his-horse tale. It is as sentimental a story as any pairing of child and animal as best friends.
Albert is a teenage boy in rural and rustic turn-of-the-century England. His father, a drunk, bids the family’s mortgage money on Joey at auction. Albert delights in having a horse and quickly trains him through gentle encouragement. Soon, World War I begins and Lt. James Nicholls buys Joey from Albert’s father. He is taken to the front line where the Germans’ frightening technology completely overwhelms the horse-riding British. Albert, in the meantime, embarks on a journey to be reunited with his friend.
Despite the elaborate horse animation, War Horse also makes use of minimal visuals as a storytelling tool.
“We allow the audience to engage their imagination,” Mai says. “We don’t show a house on a farm, just give the idea of a house. We invite the audience to take the journey with us each performance.”
Still, though the production knows when to parade out the spectacle, it doesn’t shy away from grand technical achievements when appropriate. In the war, it would be too much to ask the audience to imagine a tank. So we are given a full-size tank on stage.
The rigid, angular war machine is simultaneously a plot point and a stark contrast to the fluidity of Joey. These are puppets; we can see people controlling both tank and horse. Yet based solely on the fact that they move how we know horses and tanks do, these objects come to life.
Experiencing it through the eyes of a life-like horse serves to make war all the more terrifying. One scene in particular has Joey running in slow motion with loud war sounds, flashing explosions and a dream-like animation projected on to a screen. The audience can’t see the war and is just as frightened as Joey, who can’t understand it.
The end result of these effects is a play that is even more vivid than its big-screen cousin.
“This particular tour has a definite magic about it,” says Laquita.
Mackenzie Worrall is a contributing writer. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.