BOSTON — Everything you’ve heard about the amazing stagecraft of “War Horse” is correct. The horses in motion are as breathtaking as anything in “The Lion King” or Julie Taymor’s other productions. Magic is an overused word in theater, but not out of place here.
It’s interesting, though. There are two shows opening in Boston that originated in England — the National Theatre’s “War Horse” and “Hamlet” from Shakespeare’s Globe. “Hamlet” makes a virtue of minimal stagecraft but great acting and directing; “War Horse” is maximal stagecraft and stick-figure characterization. One is Shakespearean, the other Spielbergian.
And that’s not necessarily a good thing when it comes to the predictable arc of Spielberg’s films (“Munich” and one or two others excluded). Boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy — well we won’t give the end away, but no wonder Spielberg made a film of the story.
The difference between Spielberg and Disney, though, is that the bad stuff is very “Saving Private Ryan” bad and before you take a young ‘un with you, be advised that World War I was indeed Hell and the creative team, following in Spielberg’s footsteps, does not shrink from that message. There are more corpses, human and equine, onstage here than in “Hamlet.”
But like all popular animal stories — “Lassie, Come Home,” “My Friend Flicka” — “War Horse” is more a story about life than of death. It may seem odd that the characters who get that across aren’t alive, but you’d never know that by the way most audience members respond to these magnificent beasts or, if you prefer, life-size puppets powered by human actors.
Here’s a taste of the genius behind Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones and the Handspring Puppet Company:
There’s also excellent use of a ragged swath across the stage that serves as video screen and moving folkie ballads along the way. But the star of the show is Joey, the beloved thoroughbred horse of Albert Narracott, a 16-year-old boy in Devon, whose father has a problem with drinking and with honoring promises. He makes Joey’s and Albert’s lives miserable before selling the horse to the British army. Joey ends up on both sides of the Maginot Line, English and German, where life for horses and humans is horrific. Albert, of course, turns on his father and goes looking for Joey.
The story, then, is about as predictable and manipulative as possible, pushing every imaginable button and, unforgivably, drawing the action out to the breaking point. But if Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo makes you want to strangle him, Joey and his equine pals put you in a more pacifistic mood, which is the saving grace of the show.
It may be easy pickings to use the innocence of animals to deliver what is essentially an antiwar message, but there’s nothing easy about the way that the Handspringers make their points, and have you empathisizing with every lovely move of the horses. (The human actors aren’t bad, either, but ironically have much less to work with.)
These two British imports — “Hamlet” and “War Horse” — while opposites in how they go about their business — one with great acting and a great story the other with great stagecraft — both underline how theater at its best delivers something that no other medium can. Pip, pip.