Punching a War Horse in the Mouth

04/20/2011 4:00 AM |

War Horse
Written by Nick Stafford
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris

Only sociopaths are impervious to the love between a boy and his dog—er, horse. So War Horse, the vividly staged, terribly told, dumbed-down, tear-jerking crowd pleaser at the Vivian Beaumont, is not a heartwarming triumph of human and animal spirits amid the barbarity of battle; it's an exercise in indefensible manipulation, in which a boy longing to be reunited with the equine he adores is wrung for every possible tear: watch as they're wrenched apart, while sad and soft violin music trickles through the speakers! As they endure the horrors of trench warfare while longing for each other's unconditional love! By the end, there's literally not one dry eye in the house; I, too, couldn't stop sobbing. But I had not been made to cry. My tears had been stolen.

Exploiting the relationship between animals and people, especially children—that is, taking advantage of what Ben Brantley called "that inner part of adults that cherishes childhood memories of a pet as one's first—and possibly greatest—love"—is the cheapest narrative device an artist can employ, and War Horse plies it with expertise. After all, it's the only trick in its bag; its capacity for pandering sentimentality is endless. Set in England before WWI (and France during it), the play, based on Michael Morpurgo's children's novel, revolves around Albert (an overeager Seth Numrich) and the best-friendship he forges with a foal in a Devonshire populated by rural, post-Victorian clichés—a mean rich uncle (T. Ryder Smith), a no-good boozy pop (Boris McGiver), a willful, persevering mum (Alyssa Bresnahan), and so on. When The War comes, Albert's sodding father sells the now-grown horse to the army, and shortly thereafter the 16-year-old enlists to search the war-scarred French countryside for his only friend. (In the trenches, adolescent Albert's horse obsession borders on the morbid; shouldn't he be thinking about girls like all the other soldiers? Was Daniel Radcliffe originally approached for the part?)

The English's naïve jingoism on war's eve is belied by the realities of modern, ungentlemanly conflict. Turns out that combat is no fun and holds no glory, just cruelly indifferent violence. Who'd-a thought? Act I's halcyon farm days give way to Act II's far grimmer war scenes, where the terror and brutality are both plain (charred, hobbling survivors toting corpses) and expressionistic (blinding bursts of light and giant bullets carried on long poles). Many horses die: from exhaustion, from mercy killings, from getting caught in barbed wire. The playbill notes that eight million horses met their ends during the Great War; for every 16 horses that the English took to France, only one returned. Lest this grimness make you feel too bummed, though, the play also introduces a little French girl, whose persistent and unbearable cuteness is meant as reprieve. There's also a mean German whose description of horses as "just beasts!" invites your seething jeers. And, SPOILER, your favorite horse survives.

How about that horse? The characters might be flat, but the horses are awesome—creaking, expressive, stunning puppets, each of which require three manipulators whose harmonizing sound effects create the animals' sounds. The puppets trot, heave, and graze; they stomp, whinny, and huff their tails, seeming more real than real horses (or, god forbid, those given the gift of voice by CGI) despite their conspicuous fabrication. They're the most emotionally sincere things on the stage—more than the mugging actors, the caricatural characters, or the calculating heartstrings-tugger calling itself a script. But even that magnificence works against the show. War Horse, ultimately, is vapid spectacle, its flashiness thinly concealing, and actually emphasizing, its simplemindedness and emotional emptiness. This is "family entertainment" at its most cynical. The show may not deserve your tears. But the injury it does to The Theater just might.

(photo: Paul Kolnick)

One Comment

  • Interesting. I saw War Horse last night in Boston, presumably on a continuation of this US tour. I’m British, and originally saw the show in London, where it was out-of-this-world amazing. Totally agreed with you about it being a little overplayed and sentimental here. It got a bit WW1 101, but I think this is because they were working with a slightly different script. I imagine it was adapted for an American audience not necessarily steeped in the intricacies of British World War history (stuff about the Somme any Brit would know already etc). The accents were poor, and the comedy of the British wartime cliches a little wearing. See it in London, by the finest of British actors. I think your mind will be changed.