‘Warhorse’: the good, the bad, the wooden.
Ask yourself three questions:
i) Do I love horses?
ii) Do I like puppetry?
iii) Will I pay $100 to watch 2+ hours of horse puppetry?
Also maybe (iv) Do I l believe in The Magic of Theatre? If you answer yes to two of the four, or actually, Yes to Q (iii), then this is the horse for your course. Read no further.
I was going to say Warhorse is simple like a fairy tale, but that’s not right. Fairy tales depend on moral irony, perverse justice and shocking epiphanies. Warhorse is not simple, it’s simple-minded. Never mind psychology, feel the spectacle.
You know the story: Boy meets horse, boy falls in love, boy loses horse, horse goes to war (WWI), boy follows horse, suffering ensues, boy and horse are reunited, hurrah! And you’ve seen the hook: life-size horse puppetry on stage.
The foal comes on, gangly and unsteady, and you think: but it’s a puppet! Soon enough manifested as the full grown ‘Joey,’ the three-person puppet takes on the power of scale. It gallops round the stage, prances on hind legs, horses around — the movements and neighey noises are remarkably effective. But I couldn’t divine a personality in Joey: the puppet becomes ‘Horse,’ but not a specific horse.
Wooden horses, cardboard characters
Constant Gardener thought the acting was excruciating, but one person’s Oscar performance is another’s Mrs Brown’s Boys. In any case, if the Horse was wooden, the characters were cardboard cutouts — merely character-shaped people: young innocent Albert, his long-suffering mum, the drunken dad, the cranky uncle, the cowardly cousin. Quite rightly, puppets, costumes and sets command the attention; like the seminal Cats it’s the production design that counts — which actor inhabits which costume is secondary; we’re not there to watch them.
There is a delightful embarrassment of accents: English comes flavoured in Devon clot cream, Oxbridge officer-class and Sergeant Cockney. There is also Froggified English (farm wife and daughter) and Ze Cherman Hofficer, separated at birth from Get Smart‘s Siegfried. (A shining memory: Albert is trying to coax her name from the terrified French girl, played by the black actress, Belinda Jombwe. She finally cries, “Ebony!” But alas, that was too good to be true — it was Emilie. But I wasn’t the only one who misheard.)
A screen is suspended above the action on which is projected graphics, dates and place names (see picture). As wide as the stage it’s like a phallic piece of torn paper tapering off to a rounded point; a punning reminder of a certain absence below: Hung like a horse. Warhorse gets very gun loud and is spattered with war dead, but apart from that is chastely family-friendly fodder.
War is a Battlefield!
At 2.5 hrs inc. interval, we were hugely relieved to finally arrive at the wild coincidence that brings the story to a sudden and happy conclusion. (Though one shouldn’t ignore the dazzling central insight of Warhorse: War is a battlefield! Oops, that’s: War is Hell! Love is a battlefield.) The audience, solid Mum-and-Dad-sans-kids on our night (29 Dec. preview), applauded with full, if politely restrained, enthusiasm.
Apart from the puppetry (but too much of a good thing), I liked two aspects of Warhorse: one was death — people and horses die abruptly in war, and apart from one halo-lit, crucified-Ascension scene, it didn’t get too heroic. And most agreeably, it succeeded with its naked manipulations — to tug at that concern we instinctively feel for animals in danger. Lassie! Silver! Toto! Try doing that with wooden horses and cardboard cutouts.
As the novelist Philip Hensher so kindly says: “Sentimentality is just a word you use for a feeling you are declining to join in with.”