Friday, March 25, 2011

I digress...War Horse on Broadway

Tuesday night I went to see the NY production of War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. I wanted to see this because the London production in the West End was so well received and because it is one of the books featured in the new exhibit at the Imperial War Museum called Once Upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children. (Although I would love to see this exhibit, I am afraid the closest I will come to it is through Zoe’s wonderful review on her blog Playing by the Book.)

War Horse is a very moving World War I story about a young boy and the horse that he has cared for since it was a foal. Albert’s father Billy Narracott buys the thoroughbred horse at an auction using the mortgage money to spite his brother. Albert is allowed to care for the horse, which he names Joey, until it is fully grown, when the plan is to sell him. But his father, who has a problem with alcohol, makes bet with his brother that Joey can be turned into a plow horse in one week, otherwise the brother wins him. If the brother loses, Billy wins back the amount he paid for Joey.

Albert succeeds in teaching Joey to plow and his mother insists that from now on Joey belongs to Albert and his father must have nothing more to do with the horse. But when war is declared, the army is offering £100 for each horse. Unable to resist this amount of money, Billy sells Joey behind his son’s back.

Joey becomes a calvary horse, ridden by Lieutenant Nicholls, who is soon killed in action. Nicholls’ sketch book, with pictures he drew of Albert and Joey, is sent to Albert. Lying about his age, Albert runs away and enlists in order to go to France to find his horse.

War Horse is an emotional story that not only brings to light the intimate relationship that existed between Albert and Joey, but also the carnage of war to both man and animal.

The horses in the play are played by life sized puppets. These are not your typical Muppet puppet. They are sophisticated, adult puppets created by a South African company called Handspring Puppet Company The horses are made out of cane, aluminum, leather and mesh and have three people working it. Two people are in the body, working the legs, and one stands by the side of the horse’s head, controlling the head.

In an interview for Broadway Buzz, Basil Jones, a co-founder of Handspring, said that a puppet is an engineer of the emotions and that movement is thought. These horses become so life-like that I found myself reacting as though they were real. Little horse type movements and expressions are there, as well as the sounds horses make. It is amazing how capable of expression these puppets are, thanks to the wonderful work of the puppeteers controlling them, right down to the appearance of breathing.

The night I went to see War Horse, Joey was brought to life by Jeslyn Kelly and Jonathan David Martin in the body or as Jones put it, the horse's heart and hind. Joey’s head was controlled by Prentice Onayemi. I was so close, I could watch as Mr. Onayemi concentrated on all of Joey’s big and little movements. He was as captivating to watch as the play itself.

Topthorn (left) with Peter Hermann who plays Hauptman
Friedrich Müller and Joey (right) with puppeteer Prentice Onayemi
The head puppeteer is visible the whole time, but it does not interfer from the play one bit.

I don’t know if this play will end up traveling around the country, but if you are going to be in New York, say for the BEA and Blogger Convention in May, you might want to think about getting tickets for this wonderful production. But, unless you want to really feel like part of the action, don’t sit in seat B501. That’s where I was and I know of what I speak.


  1. I confess that although I might not love horses, I do love the theatre (having spent most of my life in it one way or the other) and these puppets sound intriguing.

  2. Well, I don't love horses as much as I do dogs and cats, but I found the relationship between Albert and Joey something special, similar to how I felt some of my pets.

  3. i love war horse i have read the boook and seen the movie and i want to see the play