By Jasmine Roth
With brilliant puppetry, ensemble work, and storytelling, War Horse defines the magic of live performance and the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. The award winning show has enchanted audiences in London and New York and will surely continue to be a success as it continues its run in the New London Theater. The production, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, and produced by the National Theater in London, is based on a novel written by Michael Morpurgo. The heart-wrenching story follows Joey, a part thoroughbred horse with spirit and charm, and his owner and companion Albert as they both face the hardships of war.
Before reading War Horse, Tom Morris wanted to produce a show using puppetry from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. The story enfolds beautifully through the use of these artfully constructed puppets. The horses are so well portrayed that the audiences are able to envision them as real horses. Each horse is portrayed by several puppeteers, and while the they are often visible, their costuming helps them to blend in.
The suspension of my disbelief came the moment an adorable foal pranced onstage. Yet, many factors aside from the horses helped the audience to embrace this venture from reality. Smaller animal puppets were the first to appear on stage allowing the audience time to accept the puppetry. The use of puppetry demands a specific relationship with an audience which would have been undermined if the rest of the design elements were entirely literal. Harnessing the representational nature of the horses, the design made use of minimal set and props and a lot of ensemble work. The house was merely a door and a window, single wooden poles held up by cast members became fences and horse pens, and boats were carried across the stage to signify water.
An important design element is a white banner that looks like a ripped piece of a sketchbook. This is in reference to a specific moment in the plot, but also symbolizes Albert’s determination and love for his horse. Sketches representing the world of the play are projected onto this background. The artwork reflects the sketchbook of the character Captain Nicholls. The actual sketches are the work of the shows designer: Rae Smith. The banner uses the perfect hybrid between still art and animation and provides continuity for the eye, as no matter how the scenes changed and other set pieces came and went, this always remained. In terms of color, this piece was the only white object on the stage. The light shone as a beacon of hope and a reminder of the light at the end of the tunnel.
Overall, the set design helps to retain the focus and enhance the story as the central part of the production. Scenes often happen right on top of each other without time for transitions. By using only a few set pieces it is easy to imagine the stage as being multiple places at once. Juxtapositions of war and home life heightened the intensity while delivering a clear depiction of time and space. The use of a musical narrator with folk songs helped bridge the transitions and aided the progression. War Horse has a fantastic soundtrack of intense music that swelled at all the right moments. The Song maker, John Tams, and Sound Designer, Christopher Shutt, harnessed the same techniques used in the movies to use music to bring the audience further into the world.
With birds flying over our heads, and actors running through the audience, the director has done everything in his power to make the audience leave their positions as spectators. An amazing part of this production is the energetic and brilliant performance of the cast. Ensemble members holding up fences creating a pen around the horse moved in perfect unison slowly spinning to new locations to create a different element of scenery. In another scene the ensemble playing dead bodies, rolled offstage making the audience feel like their bodies were disappearing. It is this kind of precision that enhanced the seamlessness of the show.This artfully crafted performance, and beautifully written play is everything a heartwarming animal tale should be, but War Horse is more than that. The play evokes a great sense of determination and humanizes both sides of the battle. Many people tell Albert to give up on his quest, but he believes in the power of his promises. His perseverance despite all the difficulties he goes through in war is remarkable. This play encourages the development of more passion in all. While Albert is persistent, Joey has an amazing ability to make all that meet him care for him, and break down barriers between enemies. The directors want us to come away in awe of the unconditional love between them, and how their lives effect those around them.