I have to admit I was knocked out by the staging of War Horse at San Francisco’s Curran Theater.  I knew that a movie of the same name had come and gone and supposed they were both based on a book.  Recent reading of other WW I fiction had focused my attention a bit more and when the Curran announced its season we bought.  Having seen it, I can hardly believe its origin was a children’s book!

Without actually being a foot soldier in a shooting war, I doubt you could get as close to the experience as the play brought us.  I would strongly recommend those with PTSD not to go.  A marvelous jagged white backdrop across the stage provided a screen on which were projected images of all kinds synchronized with the action on stage — from birds flying across the sky to anti-tank teeth projecting from muddy fields, and not just static, but slow moving scenes, changes of color and mood, seeps of dark, red blood.  Multi-media has been used a lot lately in theater; seldom has it been used so effectively.

War Horse puppetThe horses themselves were of course the main attraction, both technically and emotionally.  Whoever designed and worked out all the mechanisms of these horse-puppets deserves a special award for ingenious use of every-day knowledge.  These were no computer operated hi-tech creatures, but large barrel frames — it looked like, of wood and leather– inside of which, from time to time, we could see the two operators, one for the rear legs and the other for the fore legs.  A third person operated the head and neck on the outside, in full view of the audience, but with such fluidity and grace that he, or she, wasn’t an intrusive appendage, but simply part of the amazing mechanism.  Their ability to re-create horse movements, from rearing in fright or anger, to curiosity and attachment was incredible.  In the end, we were all caring for the horse, Joey,as if he were our own.

WW I TankA wheeled goose puppet added moments of levity.  An enormous tank skeleton added to the sense of fear and panic in the final battle.

As to the acting, I wouldn’t say there was much, or that it necessarily paled next to the impression made by the horses and the acrobatics of their operators.  Many of the lines had to be delivered over the very loud soundtrack that accompanies the moving images and the action on the stage, and so, delivered at a shout, and in adopted Irish or British accents, the lines were  too often unintelligible.

Truly an incredible experience, one which, perverse as humans are, will carry a stronger anti-war message, with horses (even puppets) suffering and dying, than the millions of men and women who died in the same trenches.

Of course now I’ll be interested in Spielberg’s 2011 movie and even the 1982 children’s book.  The author, Michael Morpurgo, said about the genesis of it,

[I thought, finally that I] could write a story about the First World War through the eyes of a horse, let the horse tell the story, and let the story of the war come through the soldiers: British soldiers first of all, then German soldiers, then a French family with whom the horse spends winters, and that maybe you’ll then get a universal idea of the suffering of the First World War.

War Horse, the book, at Alibris

For about the author and the work there are links to Murpurgo articles and interviews at his wikipedia entry.