By Lucy Komisar
The most astonishing moment in this rich and nuanced play comes when the magnificent horse Joey is caught in barbed wire in a no-man’s land between World War I British and German soldiers. Troops on both sides call an unofficial cease fire so one of them can climb out of the trenches and free him.
It takes a horse, an animal with no politics, to bring out the humanity of both sides. We see that the soldiers are not born killers; they are simply obeying orders by political leaders far from the front.
Considering the powerful message, it is perhaps ironic that Nick Stafford’s play is based on Australian author Michael Morpurgo’s novel for children. Ten million combatants died in that war. Eight million horses were killed. The magic is to get the audience also to think of Joey the horse as emblematic of all the victims.
Albert (Seth Numrich) is a farm kid who is given a horse that his drunken father Billy (Matt Doyle) got at auction where he was bidding against his own brother Arthur (T. Ryder Smith). Ironically, Billy became a drunk because he was called a coward for not serving in the Boer war in Africa but stayed to run the farm. Arthur fought “for the empire.” Or so that was the line at the time.
Albert trains and loves Joey, who on stage is a huge stunning puppet manipulated by men under and alongside it. But his father sells the horse to the cavalry which ships it to France. Albert follows to find Joey.
The story is a parable about war, the brutality of trench warfare, with the carnage represented by loud noises, shaking barbed wire, video. The production by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris is charming and aesthetically brilliant. Joey and the other horses walk as in a ballet on the moving circular stage.
Horses are sent straight into barbed wire and machine guns. “Is barbaric,” says a German soldier. Vultures peck at dead bodies. The visuals of bombs are like drawings of modern art or designs of a kaleidoscope.
People sympathize more with horses than men on the other side, perhaps because horses have not been demonized as “the enemy.”
But when a German soldier in France sees a young girl who has taken up with Joey, he thinks she is like his daughter.
WarHorse is an essential contribution to anti-war drama. Not that it will cause any change by politicians who have and will continue to order death from safe places behind the lines.
WarHorse. Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo; adapted by Nick Stafford; directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. Lincoln Center in association with Handspring Puppet Company, at Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened April 14, 2011; closes Jan 6, 2013. 12/22/12.