A Boy, a Horse, World War One and a Searing Story

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

War Horse
Vivian Beaumont Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, N.Y.

There is a moment in ‘War Horse,’ the moving, tender and spectacular new play at Lincoln Center, N.Y., where what seemed to be a soft and loving boy-loves-horse story turns course and the boy and horse are wrenched out of their quiet British town and hurled into World War I. They abandon their quaint village, with its meadows, country lanes and thatched roof homes and find themselves separated on the battlefield, both trying to save their lives amid the horrific fury of World War One.

‘War Horse,’ which will be a Steven Spielberg film next winter, is by Nick Stafford and based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book. It is the story of Albert Narracott, 13, whose rough around the edges dad, Ted, buys him a horse at an outrageous price just to outbid his brother, a longtime rival. The boy falls in love with the horse, whom he named Joey, and the horse with him. The pair spends three years together before the war starts.

The British army needed horses (they used one million of them in the conflict) and officers go on a horse buying spree. Albert’s dad sells Joey to the army and the boy is separated from his horse. Furious, he runs away from home at 16, lies about his age and joins the army so that he can find Joey on battlefields in France.

Up until that point, Stafford’s spellbinding drama is just a standard boy loves horse story. The play shifts quickly into a mesmerizing and gruesome play about the Great War, that began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in 1914 and lasted until 1918.

‘War Horse’ is a marvelously produced war drama, an historian’s delight. It is remarkable how well the director and set designer have used the Vivian Beaumont Theater to stage realistic battle scenes, with charges, barbed wire, fires, rifle fire, marches, amphibious landings and tank battles. And all of this is done amid loud, booming bomb explosions and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. The battle scenes are as vivid as any found in movies. The stage is surrounded on three sides by the audience and they get an up close and very personal, and very awful, view of war.

The stars of the show are Albert, his mom and dad and several officers in the British Army, but the real star of this show is Joey, the horse. He is a life size, chestnut colored puppet (there are a half dozen horse puppets like him in the show) that looks and moves exactly like a horse. He is manipulated by two men inside him and several on the outside who are dressed and act like handlers and, after a minute, disappear from view as you concentrate on the horse. Joey is an awesome creation. You know he is a puppet, and yet he moves just like a horse and even conveys the emotions of a horse. You can’t help loving him.

The main plot of the play is Albert’s search for Joey. Both are constantly in danger (the horse is even captured by the Germans), both are nearly killed and both weather a long and brutal war. It is the sub plot, though, the love story between a teenaged boy and his horse, that makes ‘War Horse’ an experience akin to the film ‘National Velvet’ or ‘Black Beauty,’ or any ‘Lassie’ episode. You want the boy to find his horse and don’t want harm to come to either. But it does, almost, again and again, keeping you on the edge of your seat and (in my section of seats), plenty of people weeping and arming themselves with Kleenex.

And, too, the story emphasizes that the soldiers in the battles are fighting for their countries, to be sure, but mostly fighting to stay alive and keep their comrades alive. The Germans we see are as ordinary and likable as the Brits, each side doing their duty in order to win the war but, most importantly, as in any war, to get back home in one piece to their loved ones. That theme, plus the love of horses, makes the play so special.

‘War Horse,’ and all that it tells the audience about World War One, is the single best play about history in New York this year. The theater sells a book ($1) that provides you with a rich and detailed history of World War One and both British and American involvement in it. The book also has startling information on the fatality rate for horses in the army. Nearly twenty million men were killed in World War One, but so were over a million horses (of a million horses sent to the front by the United Kingdom, fewer than 100,000 returned home). The book, and the play, also explains how warfare had changed by 1914. The horses had been the backbone of the British army for hundreds of years, but by 1914 were ineffective as warriors because new technology brought machine guns, bombs and airplanes into the conflict. So the play is the story of a dying breed of cavalry horse as well as the story of an historic carnage in Europe.

The audience also learns a lot about World War One, how it was fought, why, and what the effects of the war were later – the end of the Hapsburg Empire, a breaking up of the British Empire and the rise of Hitler.

But, in the end, it is the worry for Albert and Joey that keeps the audience engaged in the story. Will the boy avoid the machine gun fire? Will the horse escape from the enemy and survive bombs going off near him? Will the boy find his horse? It is a love story as old as the theater and enjoyable no matter where you find it, whether between Romeo and Juliet or Albert and Joey.

The play is wonderfully directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, who wring every inch of drama out of the story, keep the actors effective even while surrounded by horses and use the horse puppets well in scene after scene.

The acting in the play is powerful. Seth Numrich steals the hearts of the audience as soon as the play begins and he plays in meadows with his beloved Joey. He grows as a soldier and a man in the war. Austin Durant is sturdy as his dad, Ted, Alyssa Bresnahan is his loving mom, who both loves and scolds her husband for the dumb things he does and, throughout the war, worries about her son. Ted’s brother Arthur is played well by T. Ryder Smith.

It is the horses and their manipulators who steal the show. Joey’s manipulators Joby Earle, Ariel Heller, Alex Hoeffler, Jesslyn Kelly, Jonathan David Martin, Prentice Onayemi, Jude Sandy, Zach Villa and Enrico D. Wey.

Special kudos to Rae Smith and Paule Constable for the sets and lighting that bring the war to life. The set is highlighted by a huge movie screen above the stage on which projects of countryside and warfare are seen, as well as quiet, star filled night skies. The horses were designed and directed by Adrian Kohler and Basic Jones, with the Handspring Puppet Company, whose members here have created a marvelous world within the world of England.

‘War Horse’ is one of the finest plays of the year in New York. Do not wait until it comes out as a movie. Gallop off to see it now.

PRODUCTION: Sets, costumes and drawings: Rae Smith, Lighting: Pale Constable, Sound: Christopher Shutt, Horse work: Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones, Handspring Puppet Company, Toby Sedgwick, 59 Productions

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