I had the rare opportunity (for me) to be in London before the massive crowds descended for the Olympics in July. I saw the National Theatre’s production of War Horse at the New London Theatre on a balmy May evening in the brief stint of warm weather before it got cold again.
What a show. This play reminds us, yet again, why we love horses.
Based on the book by Michael Morpugo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, War Horse tells the story of an English horse named Joey and his boy named Albert who, separated by World War I, experience the horrors of trench warfare as they desperately seek to find one another once more. The production uses life-size, jointed puppets engineered by Handspring, a South African puppet company, to bring Joey and the other horses to life.
The production was less about portraying stories and concepts with a high degree of realism and more about capturing the essence of things—the essence of war, the essence of humanity, the essence of the love between a boy and his horse. Joey’s three puppeteers capture the essence of horse in a symphony of perfectly coordinated movement and sounds. As an audience member, you forget that the puppeteer is standing there by Joey’s head controlling the movements, and you begin to believe that this wicker and metal puppet is a living, breathing creature because the puppet moves and breathes just as a horse would. And as a horse lover, you are reminded of looking into the eyes of your horse and seeing in them the eyes of a friend.
The puppeteers also captured the fact that horses react as a mirror to the people who are with them, and you can get a feel for the character of any one person in the play by seeing how he or she reacts to Joey and the other horses. Joey acts as a great humanizing element, and this becomes especially apparent at a few different points during the show.
One of the most touching scenes in the play is when Joey becomes entangled in barbed wire in the no-man’s land between the trenches of opposing sides. A cease-fire is called, and men from each side flip a coin to see who will take the horse with them. The coin is tossed, the English win, and with a friendly handshake and a pat on Joey’s nose, the German returns to his trench once more. For a moment all conflict between men and nations is stripped away, and two people make a connection over a horse.
As I watched this scene and others, I was reminded again of a great truth: Our horses can help us to be better human beings and citizens of this world. And that, for me, made the play worth seeing.
War Horse is now touring the United States, and it’s bound to be a good run. Get more information and tickets at: War Horse on Stage | Official International Site | US Tour
Guess article by Matt James.
Matt James is an avid outdoorsman and a lover of all things horse. He currently writes for the quality horse trailer supplier doubledtrailers.com.