It’s impossible not to fall in love with Joey, the eponymous and unambiguous hero of this British transfer. Dashing, humorous, sensitive and gorgeous, this expressive beast is a concoction of wires almost magically imbued with breathing life by a crew of unobtrusive puppeteers from Handspring Puppet Company. The gorgeous beast himself, along with the various other four-footed and two-winged beasts of the story, is the work of designers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, and one almost pities the poor actors who have only their own humble bodies to work with. Watching these masterpieces is utterly engrossing – but we’re given precious little opportunity to enjoy them.
Alas, the play that called them into being is not such a thing of beauty or wonder. Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book, “War Horse,” the play is a cautionary tale that exploits its audience’s humanity (and its anthropomorphism) to brutalize their sensibilities – all in a good cause of course. The story begins when a perpetually drunk English farmer with a chip on his shoulder and mortgage money burning a hold in his pocket (Boris McGiver) buys a half-thoroughbred, half-draft horse colt. His son Albert (Seth Numrich) promptly falls in love with the ungainly creature and names him Joey.
Predictably, the affection is soon mutual and deep, and almost immediately an increasingly gruesome series of obstacles is thrown in their way, beginning with lack of funds, moving on to a foolhardy bet made by the father, and then, as they take each hurdle, World War I rears its ugly head, and Joey is sold to a cavalry regiment. As soon as he can, Albert follows, but as he learns of man’s inhumanity to man, Joey experiences man’s inhumanity to horses, which are forced, in horribly but historically accurate detail, to gallop into machine gun fire and barbed wire.
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, War Horse is, up to a point, emotionally effective, repeatedly hitting the two notes of our love for animals and our wincing away from witnessing them getting hurt. From the very beginning, almost every scene is an agony of suspense, as you wait to see whether one of the horses will be mistreated or worse.
The show’s staging is striking and imaginative, and the performances are excellent; but in the face of that exhausting anticipation, it doesn’t really seem to matter. The various human characters are hurt and killed with abandon. Perhaps the best – and most disturbing – sign of the show’s priorities occurs when, toward the play’s end, a German soldier points out that he and the other combatants are, after all, in the midst of a war and people are getting killed as well (or as badly) as their equine counterparts – and that’s how you know he’s a bad guy.
But it’s not just the Houyhnhnm ethos, it’s the unrelenting manipulativeness of the disquieting mixture of sentimentality and sadism that makes this play difficult to endure. It all seems to be in service of the message that war is bad and, more importantly, it’s bad for the horses. But by the end, you may feel like you’re the one who’s been impaled on the barbed wire.