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War Horse: A Stunning Production

Published: 12/8/2011
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By Maddy Butcher

For horse people, I suspect there’s no better big city production than War Horse.
I had this incredible privilege recently at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Since I’d never been to a show in New York, any production would have dazzled and impressed.  But with War Horse, the thrill was surreal.

On a stage under intense lights, watched by 1,100 well-dressed theatergoers, in a building surrounded by skyscrapers and another eight million people, a team of three puppeteers brought me right back to my barn.

As the play opens, we see Joey, the horse and main character. He is played by three puppeteers – one in control of head movement, one in control of front legs, one in charge of his haunches and tail.
We watch Joey breathe, look around, swish his tail, flick his ears back and forth, and snort when something spooks him off stage.

Five minutes.
No words.
A horse being a horse.
Five minutes and I was tearing up already.

The next two and a half hours had me transfixed.
But why?

What I knew intuitively, I couldn’t answer formally until I dove into the program notes and read about the author of War Horse, and the puppeteers who brought the horse to life on stage.
Initially a children’s story, War Horse, was written by Michael Morpurgo. Back in the 1970’s, Morpurgo had been searching for a way to honor family members who suffered and died during World War I, a war which claimed the lives of 20 million people and eight million horses.
At the same time, Morpurgo and his wife were running Farms for City Children, an educational charity where city kids can visit and work on English farms.
One night, he met a seven year-old boy who stammered and was so taunted by his peers that he’d given up on speaking.
Morpurgo watched the boy as he hung out in the barn after dinner. The boy was talking freely to a horse. He was confident, knowing he wasn’t going to be judged or mocked, explained the author.

So Morpurgo knew a thing or two about the therapeutic powers of animals and the intense, non-verbal bond we develop with them.

Those points form the spine of War Horse. A horse saves a boy and the boy saves the horse.

Now, enter the puppeteers.
I’m not talking about Kermit.
Puppets like Kermit “aren’t really animals. They simply use the shape of an animal to add some kind of texture to what is basically a human argument,” said Adrian Kohler, co-creator of the War Horse puppets. “working with the horses in War Horse has meant we’ve got to learn how horses think, how horses are different from humans.”

War Horse puppeteers were so skilled you forgot they were there. You never saw them breathe. You saw the horse breathe. You never saw them fidget. You saw Joey shift his weight, shake his tail, scratch an itch with his teeth, stomp his hooves.
Joey’s movements  were believable because the puppeteers lack of movement was so committed.
As Kohler said, “It’s sort of the Zen of non-movement. You only move when you know that you’re adding to the meaning of the moment.”

Joey is no Mr. Ed.

I suspended my disbelief whole-heartedly.

Bucket Listers: Penny wants to see War Horse. How 'bout you?
Click here to view War Horse 'Anatomy of a Scene' -- New York Times feature.

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12/8/2011 Maxine Friend
I too had the privilege of seeing War Horse this year with some friends, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The puppeteers are truly AMAZING.
12/8/2011 sonia
We went to see War Horse this past Summer on Broadway (cross that off my Bucket List!). No other play could have moved me so much and I am really happy you saw it and feel the same way about it as I do. It is absolutely spellbinding, there is nothing else like it and yes, you forget there are people manipulating the horses and you cannot take your eyes off the horses. It will be moving to Toronto in the New Year, please go and see it if you can, it will blow you away. An artistic experience of a lifetime.
12/8/2011 arlene
I read the book and am going to see the movie the day after Christmas. Wonderful, wonderful.
12/8/2011 Lyda
I recieved the National Theatre Programme in the mail awhile back from a sculptor friend in Scotland, who said she was invited to go to London to see it, but was afraid she would become overwhelmed by the power of it. It looks amazing from the photos.

   
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