The one question you have to answer in reviewing a production of War Horse is this: is the much-heralded puppetry of the show really good enough that three people inside a cane-and-nylon costume will convince you you’re looking at a horse?
'What seems a simple “boy and his horse” story actually becomes an intriguing way to depict the horrors of war - and the irrationality of human conflict.' - Joff Schmidt
The answer for the current touring production running in Winnipeg - brought here by Broadway Across Canada - is an unequivocal yes.
The strikingly real, and entirely captivating, portrayal of the horses in the 2007 Tony-winning play (adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s novel) makes the equine stars considerably more interesting than any of the human characters in the story. Which is fine, since the story really belongs to them - and particularly to lead horse Joey (puppeteered as a foal by Catherine Gowl, Nick Lamedica, and former Winnipegger Mairi Babb - and as an adult by Danny Yoerges, Adam Cunningham, and Dayna Tietzen).
The story is simple - sometimes deceptively so. We follow Joey from bonding with a poor farm boy, Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox), to being drafted into the First World War as a cavalry horse, and through his wartime adventures - sometimes epic, sometimes tragic, and across both sides in the conflict.
What seems a simple “boy and his horse” story actually becomes an intriguing way to depict the horrors of war - and the irrationality of human conflict. The image of horses falling in slow motion under machine gun fire is as effective an indictment of war’s depraved insanity as you’ll ever see. And the kindness and cruelty the spirited Joey elicits - from both British and German soldiers - reminds us that even at war, humans aren’t so very different from one another.
But the reason to see War Horse isn’t for Stafford’s script. Most of the characters are pretty two-dimensional (a German officer played winningly by Andrew May is the chief exception). It’s predictable, and the dialogue is often direct to the point of clunkiness. And it’s shamelessly emotionally manipulative - but I defy you to ignore the lump in your throat you’ll feel at the play’s end.
That lump comes not so much from the script, as from the brilliant performance of the puppeteers behind (or in this case under) Joey. Working inside a rod-controlled puppet made of nylon stretched over a cane skeleton (originally created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick), the skilled performers have mastered every slight twitch of the ears and flick of the tail to make us believe we’re looking at a real horse. The precision and attention to detail is flawless, but they make it a thankless job in the process - before long, we’ve lost sight of the actors, and see only the horse.
And while they’re the main attraction, there’s spectacle to the show beyond the horses - dramatic lighting from Paule Constable, bombastic music by Adrian Sutton, and effectively-produced animation, projected on a narrow overhead screen, take us into the chaos of war. It all makes the 160-minute production (originally directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, with Bijan Sheibani helming this tour) engaging once it finds its legs, about mid-way through a sometimes slow first act.
Give War Horse a chance to suspend your disbelief and pull at your heartstrings, and it will take you on an entertaining ride.
The Broadway Across Canada presentation of War Horse runs at the Centennial Concert Hall until June 22.