Breathing Life into Wood and Fabric: “War Horse” on stage

By Posted on 8 Comments 4 min read 376 views
A poster diagram of the “Joey” puppet hangs in the theater lobby. /Photo by Rhonda Lane

Just because “War Horse” is a play based on a children’s book and stars puppets doesn’t mean this play isn’t intense.

The show might be too much for a child under 8, no matter how precocious and smart. There’s nothing gruesome in the show, but story developments can be upsetting, even to those of who studied the Joey puppet diagram hanging in the theater lobby and are intellectually hip to the fact that Joey is made of fabric and wood.

Because once you settle in your seat and the house lights go dark, Magic happens.

Outside the Vivian Beaumont Theater in the courtyard of Lincoln Center

Quick plot synopsis

A farmer with more ego than sense buys a draft/thoroughbred cross weanling at an auction even though he’s supposed to bring home a more practical animal.

The farmer’s teenage son Albert takes over the care and training of the foal, who he calls Joey, and they grow up together. Then, war breaks out, so the British cavalry needs horses. Joey gets sent Over There (I don’t want to spoil how that happens), so the under-age Albert runs away to join the war to find his horse.

Sources of the play

The play and the upcoming Stephen Spielberg film are based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book with the same title.

In the book, the narrator is Joey the horse.The book reminds me of the old Richard Adams novel TRAVELLER, a Civil War story told from the point-of-view of Robert E. Lee’s horse.

In the play, we have Albert scenes and Joey scenes, each taking center stage as viewpoint characters. The division is strongest after intermission when our heroes are “deep in the suck,” as modern troops would say, but still apart from each other.

According to the play’s issue of the Lincoln Center Review magazine available in the lobby, a variety of circumstances came together for Morpurgo to write “War Horse” the book.

In the mid-1970s, he and his wife had been working on a farm with at-risk children. He’d also begun writing his next book, as he’d told an elder village resident in a pub, a book inspired by a painting of an old World War I cavalry charge in which horses struggled with barbed wire.

As fortune sometimes smiles on storytellers building a tale from the heart, the old man told Morpurgo about the cavalry horse he’d loved and had to leave behind in France at the end of the war.

Think about it. If you’re the least bit horsey, you’ve found solace in the barn. You’ve relaxed at the rumble of a friendly nicker. You’ve found comfort in warm air puffing from a soft muzzle on your palm. You whisper secrets to swiveling ears and know you won’t be ratted out. Now —

Imagine you’re far from home and can’t go home until you’re allowed to go. Strangers are using nightmarish, previously unimaginable, machines to kill you and your friends, which include your horses. The noise is deafening and constant. You wonder, how can people do things like that to other human beings, even though you’ve been trained to do it to them first or be killed yourself. Then, what happens if the nightmare comes true – when your buddy, human or equine, dies and the other lives on?

Ah, welcome to power and emotion of “War Horse.”

Now you have a little idea why this children’s story isn’t really light fare. That deep message uses the magic of puppetry to create complex characters out of wood, pulleys and net.

Realistic equine movements

From the twitch of a coat to the swivel of the ears and even the movement of the mouth, the horse behavior performed by the puppets and their puppeteers is true to life. We even see a demonstration of herd dynamics.

Even more remarkable, each horse is portrayed by teams of three puppetteers. One operates the head and appears as a handler. Two other puppeteers work from inside to operate the horse’s fore and hindquarters. They manage to become invisible.

Here’s a Ted video by the creators of the Handspring Puppet Company, which shows how Joey the horse evolved from a hyena. You’ll understand what I mean once you watch the video.

If you can’t see the embedded video of the puppetry that goes into “War Horse,” click here.

The Lincoln Center Theater Review also includes an article by Monty Roberts, favorite horse whisperer to HRH Elizabeth II and consultant on horse behavior for the original stage production in London. During the play, if you have even some familiarity with Monty’s principle of Join Up, you’ll recognize it in use.

A Lincoln Center blog posts on War Horse reports that several Joey teams even add their own personal touches to the performance. Sometimes, Joey is a little bolder. Or kinder.

Horse’s aren’t the only creatures brought to life by puppetry. Birds soar and swoop. Probably the most popular character besides Joey is the Goose, that shameless scene-stealer.


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  • Laura Moore
    June 22, 2011

    Great review, Rhonda!

    I loved the play–I saw it two months ago–and I’m still thinking about it. You’re so right about what makes the play so powerful both visually and emotionally. For those of you who haven’t bought tickets and love horses and great theater, do try to see it!

    • Rhonda Lane
      June 23, 2011

      Thanks, Tracy. I agree that it might be “too much” for kids. I know it would have been too much for me when I was a child. I couldn’t watch “Lassie” for spazzing out with anxiety at the thought of her in danger.

  • Rhonda Lane
    June 22, 2011

    Thanks, Laura. I agree. Talk about a special holiday, birthday or anniversary gift. Tickets to War Horse – and a packet of tissues. 🙂

  • Tracy Costa
    June 23, 2011

    Rhonda, this is wonderful. It amazes me how puppetry can tell so poignant a story. I will put it on my “to be seen” list— though maybe without the kids. 🙂