There may be something worth investigating in this business of adapting certain sweeping historical novels for young readers as theatrical epics for a general audience. Having seen two so far—Coram Boy, which was a hit in London but not here (though it deserved to be) and now War Horse (which is a hit there, here and likely everywhere it’ll get done), I’m struck by how the construction of such novels, in keeping with the marketplace and audience they must tap into, is so compatible with clearly, cleanly dramatized objectives, and not merely those of the main characters.
In War Horse, for example from the short novel by Michael Morpurgo, there’s Arthur, a teenage boy from the English countryside of Devon. He acquires a horse that his drunken father has won in a bidding war with money he couldn’t afford to spend. But Arthur adores the horse, which he names Joey (who takes a shine to him too) and earns the right to keep him. Boy and horse manage magnificently together for a time, until Dad, drunk again, and covertly, sells Joey to the Army. They need horses that can function in battle; it’s the start of WWI. And now the storyline bifurcates: an underage Arthur joins the Army to find Joey; and Joey goes through his own wartime experiences and several owners until…well, that would be spoiling things, now would it?
I’m not remotely saying that this—I’ll call it a genre—should dominate the landscape or become so faddish that it loses its quality and meaning (I mean, God bless the complexity, erudition and density of Tom Stoppard, especially when he’s at the top of his game). All I’m saying really is: what a startling paradigm for getting to the heart of the matter, the story and, not incidentally the audience. And not with an After School Special demographic focus or compromise (that is, theatrical compromise; not to use After School Specials as a pejorative). The stories themselves have a universality that lifts them above niche market and have the potential to create…well international phenomena. Of which War Horse certainly seems to be one.
Another advantage these stories seem to have is how they lend themselves to poetic expression. In the inevitable movie of War Horse, you can just bet Joey will be a real animal. But here he’s a lifesize puppet. Well, actually two: one representing him as a pony (animated by two operators), one as a full grown steed (animated by three). We see the puppeteers, we don’t tune them out and yet we also see and fully believe in the horse. (It’s not so different in principle than the illusion created in Avenue Q, though the esthetic is hugely different.) But puppetry is only a small portion of what co-directors Marianne Elliott & Tom Morris have done to make Nick Stafford’s adaptation come to magical, exhilarating, heartbreaking and uplifting life. Lighting, projections, scenic effects and suggestion and contributions from numerous specialists—and a very large (35) and committed American company—all contribute to one of the most stunning achievements in large scale stagecraft I’ve ever seen.Or that you will…
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