War Horse: Puppets in The Theatre of War

As a librarian, I had often recommended Michael Morpugo’s books to children in the library, particularly War Horse and Private Peaceful, a book about a very young soldier. War Horse, the play, had been at the Catford Studio Theatre just at the time we were arranging to move back to Essex and I’d been kicking myself ever since that, in all the shenanigans of moving, we never got  round to booking it at that time.

Yes, it may be a late War Horse review but, if you are still one of those who’d still rather see the play before War Horse, the film, here’s my take on it. We saw the play on 10 January; at least we’d seen it before seeing Stephen Spielberg’s film, we figured. Interested in seeing the film also, I looked at a review of the film in Horse & Hound. Clearly, I reasoned, the best reviewers for a film of a book originally told from the horse’s point of view.  It was very telling: http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/features/5125/311017.html  I now wonder whether I still fancy the film, a Spielberg production though it may be.

Most people already know, then, that War Horse was a story about a horse caught up in WWI, told by Joey, the horse himself. Having heard that they used puppets in the play, my TV-worshipping OH had visions of the be-stringed versions of our youth or, at most, hand-puppets, the best he could recall being The Muppets, Basil Brush, Rod Hull’s Emu. I’m not sure if Emu counts as a puppet or whether he’s a dummy.

Whatever. I’d seen The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre years back with the children and knew that they could create lifelike and life-sized puppets from, it seemed swatches of fabric, bits of wood and actors on stilts. And I had been captivated. I hadn’t been so certain about enjoying a puppeteer-ed horse, though, and had a clear impression of a giant Muffin the Mule in my head.

I needn’t have doubted the skills of the Handspring Puppet Company for a second. From the moment we saw the skittish, chestnut foal Joey on stage, right through his growing-up and becoming a life-sized, solid, weighty equine with soulful eyes, a demonstrative head and twitching ears, I was captivated by puppets all over again. Joey breathed and moved just like any horse, the three puppeteers (per main horse) seeming to disappear as our empathy with him grew. Another puppet, the goose, would rush on flapping at just the right moments, bossing round the farm, insulted when doors slammed in her face, so that the audience creased up en masse.

I think I wept at six points during the performance. Why had puppets made me cry? Because they, the puppeteers and the playwriters, had managed to achieve what Michael Morpugo had set out to do when he first wrote War Horse, the book. The central characters were the blameless creatures, the horse puppets and goose; and the main character being Joey, just as he had been in the book. Although it would have been difficult to script it only from Joey’s point of view, the play does achieve that extraordinary sense of seeing the world through Joey’s eyes. A young man’s search for the horse his father sold to the army is concomitant with, yet almost secondary to, Joey’s experience of life and of war.

Where German and British soldiers are necessarily involved in the play, I wondered why there was so much German dialogue I and presumably others couldn’t understand but, of course, that served to reinforce Joey’s viewpoint. Brought up on an English farm, he is wrenched from a loving boy-owner and thrust into the terrors of war and all that goes with it.  Suddenly, soldiers are talking to, and shouting at, him and around him in German.  It would have dissolved the meaning to have had the Germans speaking in broken accented English for the benefit of an English-speaking audience. So what Joey couldn’t comprehend, neither could I; a nice point.

The action takes place all around the audience during the play but, whether off-stage or on, Joey is always the quietly innocent yet powerful force at the centre. Joey manages, along with Topthorn, other horses and the goose to convey the tragic waste, the abuse of innocence, the despoiling of the soul, all the ways that war brings a million kinds of loss to so many.

Joey, like a million other British horses, represents the innocent lives caught up in war, particularly guileless animals – who may have found themselves “working” for both sides in one war – who have no choice but to obey. The scene in no-man’s land with the rolls of barbed wire is one of the most poignant I have ever witnessed.

Music, raw country-folk song and simple melodies, accompanies the play throughout. For me, it added to the sense of innocence raped and plundered, and provided a backdrop of the kinds of music that would have been played in the English countryside in 1914-18.

Puppets, then. Did they work with such a powerful subject?  Two points. Firstly, the fact that they were puppets and, like all innocents in wartime, manipulated by the powerful to do exactly as the powerful wanted them to do, to the point of exhaustion or death, served to emphasise the point of the story.

Whether I was looking at actors playing soldiers, or villagers, French countrywomen or anyone else affected by the great mess that was World War I, all I was seeing were puppets. Puppets in the sad theatre of war. But stage-puppets can be manipulated to show feeling, too; to show hurt, shock, offence and pain. After reading the Horse & Hound film review, I’ll be interested to see if the horses in the film, untouched in reality by any pain or downright exhaustion, can induce the emotional charge Joey and company gave me.  I was delighted to find that the War Horse puppets moved both me and OH emotionally, more than they themselves were physically moved about by humans.

Secondly, those puppets walked as horses with tangible weight and movement, made realistic sounds, trotted and cantered with apparent joints and muscles like horses, expressed themselves as horses do, showed the sensitivity of horses and hurt like horses. It was all so movingly plausible to the senses that, after a few minutes, I forgot that puppeteers were involved. I was absorbed with the story being played out on the proscenium stage before me.  And, as happens with all the best theatrical magic, I simply believed.

Before I see the celluloid version, then, I’m biased. I think it would be hard for the film to beat the bamboo, mesh and leather of the puppet-driven War Horse.  Whether it’s best to see the play or the film first or only one or the other … is a decision I’ll leave up to you.

Have you read or seen War Horse?  The book, the play and/or the film?  What did you think?

Links:

Tickets for War Horse: http://www2.seetickets.com/reallyuseful/calendar.asp?e|artist=WAR+HORSE&filler1=reallyuseful

Michael Morpugo: War Horse: http://www.amazon.co.uk/War-Horse-Michael-Morpurgo/dp/1405226668/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326579236&sr=1-1

Handspring Puppet Company http://www.handspringpuppet.co.za/

Picture: http://www.westendtheatre.com

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About Tessa Tangent

I write and I often go off at tangents. Tessa Tangent's my nickname and, at home, I'm called Tessa more than I am my real name, Heather. In the 90s, I had short stories published in magazines like Ludus and For Women. I also won a cherished second prize in a BBC travel writing competition, was the writer of a newsletter for a dry ski slope and had a newspaper article about the slope published. At the same time, I wrote half a first draft of a novel then, for reasons I may reveal, I stopped writing. After a long fallow period, I am writing again - and not a moment too soon...
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