There is a time portal inside of the Lincoln Center Theater. War Horse– a striking play about the peaks and trenches of life during World War I and the legend of young English soldier Albert Narracott– is an authentic and moving performance. Through a combination of song, dance-like choreography, and stunning puppetry, viewers see Albert’s relationship with his horse, Joey. The show begins in the English countryside, with the majority of the first act so like a folktale it feels quite predictable: Albert is naïve and affectionate; his father is drunk and scheming; his uncle’s son is rich and spoiled. A strip of fabric above the stage displays dates and drawings and serves as a kind of fairytale bookmark. The puppetry is lovely, the language lively, and Albert’s childish love for Joey seems foreign in the greater urban atmosphere of NYC, but is charming nonetheless.
The trouble starts when Albert’s father sells Joey to the military and Albert, in hopes of being reunited with Joey, joins the army as well. Rural, idyllic England quickly becomes a thing of the past as warfare conquers Europe and every aspect of the performance becomes exponentially more harrowing, more raw, and (disturbingly) more familiar. The fairytale bookmark becomes a ripped page out of a history textbook. The puppetry becomes dark and only eerily human. The language becomes confusing and muddled. And the lyrics to the peasants’ song, sung throughout the play, “Only remembered for what we have done” change from a cultural relic to an epitaph. The second act successfully makes the violent time period of World War I relatable by contrasting the horrors of trench warfare with Albert’s love of nature and horses. At first Albert and Joey’s relationship seemed cute but silly, especially as characters begin dying off with alarming rapidity and the puppets lose their former glow of health. But the message comes through for even a modern day New York City audience that during a time of fleeting life and minimal material wealth, you valued what you had and you valued nature. And a horse was the powerful combination of the two.
This production is more than a historical or theatrical piece: it is a show of humanity. In addition to the human nature of the war, the puppets themselves are also human. When a puppet is radiant it is because the person maneuvering the puppet makes smooth movements; but when a puppet is weak, the person’s movements are jerky and feeble. When the horse Topthorn dies, his body is first laid on the ground, and then the actors walk slowly out of the hollow shell. This human presence permeates throughout the show, offering a very unique look at both our relationship with nature and our relationship with one another during wartime.