Prior to seeing War Horse, I expected puppets. And horses. Possibly even tears. To sum up, I expected a straight play with puppets, horses, and tears. I didn’t expect music; nor did I expect light animation or the amalgam of art I was presented with.
War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and currently showing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, follows the trajectory of a young boy and his horse who are separated as a result of World War I. The story is heartwarming. And the famous puppets used to play the horses are truly as lifelike and amazing as I had heard they were. For me, War Horse seems to be a convergence of more than just one type of art, transcending the idea of a traditional play to instead become more of an experience in multiple art forms.
Throughout the show, traditional folk songs are sung in interim periods between scenes, or sometimes to highlight specific moments during the action. Generally these are sung a capella. Some songs are livelier than others, accompanied by a violin, a second voice, or even an accordion. One song in particular leaves the audience haunted by its soulful refrain, “Only remembered for what we have done.” The refrain is repeatedly heard throughout the show, linking scenes together aurally, and providing an added cultural component to deepen the play’s setting in Devon, England.
The use of lights and animation also gives depth to the performance, whether by depicting a full and approaching cavalry on a screen hanging above the stage or by adding visual realism to the blasts portrayed in battle scenes. Though it could easily distracting to have so much going on, Warhorse managed to rein in all of its artistry to create a completely enchanting production.
It would be remiss of me not to comment on the puppetry, since it is the most well-known aspect of the show. The horses are realistic to the point where you no longer notice the actors at all. And the puppetry is also used in many other, less-often described ways. Geese and chicken casually walk across the stage as puppets. And bird puppets actually open the show. Inanimate objects, too, also become puppets, as tanks roll and missiles fly across the stage.
I saw War Horse through an incredible opportunity provided by High 5 and Lincoln Center Theater, but I strongly recommend it to any who have the chance. It is so much more than just a play.
Image from The Huffington Post