During a 2009 visit to London, a striking poster for “War Horse,” a show at Great Britain’s esteemed National Theatre, snagged my attention.
It was a half-portrait of a horse’s wide-eyed face, looming over a line of silhouetted soldiers. I knew nothing of the play, but was so intrigued I quickly reserved a ticket.
What a lucky hunch: “War Horse,” based on a popular British novel set during World War I, turned out to be thrilling in its stagecraft, and gripping as a coming-of-age adventure and a depiction of war’s ravages.
It also moved me as a tale of devotion between a boy and his beloved horse — actually, an astonishing life-size puppet animated by several actors, and created by South Africa’s innovative Handspring Puppet Company.
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Word of the unique enchantments of “War Horse” soon spread. It’s become the most successful, far-reaching show in the National Theatre’s 50-year history. According to the company, it has sold more than 3 million tickets worldwide.
This week, the Seattle Theatre Group and Seattle Repertory Theatre present the local debut of “War Horse,” at Paramount Theatre on its first U.S. tour. A West End run in London is in its fourth year, a recent Broadway stand earned top Tony Awards, and in 2013 other “War Horse” companies are touring Australia, Germany and Britain. (The Steven Spielberg movie, “War Horse,” though also based on Michael Morpurgo’s same-titled novel, is unrelated to the play.)
We will see how it looks on tour, reconfigured for big proscenium stages like the Paramount’s. But the show is undoubtedly one of the high points of artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed 10-year tenure at the National.
By phone from London, Hytner spoke of the broad appeal of the show, why it is suitable for families, and how it differs dramatically from the big-budget Spielberg film.
The idea of a stage adaptation of Morpurgo’s novel was suggested to Hytner by Tom Morris, who ultimately co-directed “War Horse” with Marianne Elliott, in collaboration with the Handspring puppeteers.
“It went through a long developmental process, and at every step I could see what they were doing was calling upon absolutely every weapon in the dramatic armory,” Hytner recalled.
“The show makes very contemporary use of all the ancient theater crafts. The scenery is graphic in an almost old fashioned way. There’s folk music, one of the oldest of our theatrical traditions, as is puppetry. This is not a piece that’s demanding in its technology. It’s quite pared down. But the use of so many techniques gives you a feeling of epic richness that one rarely gets in the theater.”
For many viewers the most memorable aspects of the epic are the natural-seeming horses, which exude extraordinary theatrical charisma.
One quickly forms an emotional connection to the snuffling, stamping, galloping equine puppets — especially Joey, a stallion who gets separated from his farmboy owner, Albert, and shipped off to the French battlefront with the British cavalry.
“This creature that the audience well knows is made of cane and stretched gauze and bits of old leather is so potent because it engages the imagination,” said Hytner. “It goes far beyond the literal.”
“I thought [the Spielberg movie] was beautiful to watch, but it was very literal. There are so many things a real horse can’t do, that theater can.”
Though prized for its stagecraft, “War Horse” has at times been criticized for the simplicity and somewhat melodramatic nature of its story (dramatized for the stage by Nick Stafford).
It opens in rural Devon, as young Albert and his father overcome obstacles to buy the unruly Joey, and set out to train him. The action then shifts to France, where Albert and Joey are swept into the brutality and valor of a trench war that killed 16 million soldiers — nearly a million of them British. Coincidences lead to a bittersweet ending.
Declared Hytner, “Handspring uses their craft to tell a story that doesn’t aim to be subtle or ambiguous or contradictory in the way the greatest plays are, but in a way that fires the audience’s imagination.”
In Britain, where historical awareness of the catastrophic “war to end all wars” remains high, Morpurgo’s 1982 book “was written for young readers. It was meant to introduce adolescents to the relationship of a boy and his horse, and to the horrors of World War I.”
Yet given the show’s unflinching depiction of horses and people being mowed down in battle, does Hytner really consider it family fare?
“It was always conceived as a play for family. Actually, I think the ideal audience includes children as young as 10. Yes, people and animals get killed, that’s something that happens in war. It’s not something to be shielded from.
“There’s no blood in the play, no special effects. There’s none of the fake violence of some computer games and films, which can deaden you to the real impact of violence. Here, death is sad. The only people who’ve been upset are adults who underestimate a child’s capacity to understand humans are capable of inflicting great evil on others.”
The widespread success of “War Horse” and global popularity of National Theatre Live (broadcasts of NT stage shows, seen so far by a million people in 23 countries including the U.S.) have helped the company offset recent cuts in arts funding imposed by Britain’s Conservative government.
Hytner has vigorously opposed such cuts, especially those hitting smaller arts groups. He made headlines recently by decrying the U.K. culturel minister’s stance, and the cuts’ potential impact on Britain’s economy and world-class arts scene.
“Look, I know we are much better funded by our government than American theaters,” Hytner told me. “But I believe we’ve had a very effective model in England. A quite minimal government investment of about a tenth of a penny to the pound for the arts has yielded a tremendous return. It works, and should continue.”
Hytner’s new staging of Shakespeare’s “Othello” opens at the National in April. But he’s also planning to soon exit his post, and hand the reins to a new artistic chief. “Every 10 years you need new energy here. I feel as vital as I did when I started this job, but the theater needs to accommodate new ideas, new energy, new enthusiasms. I do feel the time to go is when you start to feel you know what you’re doing.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com