By Patricia H. Kushlis
I saw War Horse at the New London Theatre in London’s West End last August on the advice of a friend. I found it riveting – all two and one-half hours of it. This play about a young man and his horse had been filling houses since it opened at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2007.
Yet as I read the articles (the first a story about the story’s story by Sarah Lyall and the second Ben Brantley’s official Times critique) in The New York Times when the play opened at Lincoln Center two weeks ago, I wondered if the reviewers – especially Brantley - and I had seen the same show.
Was this, I wondered, a World War I story about Billy and Joey, a British boy and his horse that appealed to the home crowd but hadn’t traveled well across the Atlantic?
A tepid review - why?
Did Brantley somehow object to the fact that it was based on a children’s book and despite the fact that he liked the puppets as puppets, the star performers were see-through life-sized bamboo-framed skeleton puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa which took on lifelike characteristics and emotions as they interacted with the human characters and each other to tell this heart-wrenching tale? Was the story perhaps too trite? The human characters too one dimensional – as he suggests.
Did War Horse lack emotional subtlety or elicit too much raw emotion? Or did Brantley have a strange kind of horse phobia perhaps as a result of attempting to ride dyspeptic and uncooperative nags as a child at summer camp? Or maybe he just didn’t relate to simple villagers who lived hard-scrabble but straightforward lives nearly a century ago.
Or did he recoil from the fact that the old-school German officer who rescued Joey from the bone pile was not portrayed as the enemy-incarnate but as a human being with a fondness for animals?
Too old fashioned or too long ago?
Was the play’s plot too old fashioned or World War I too long ago to be of more than passing interest? Or was the war too young to rate as the worthy subject for an updated equivalent to Ben Hur?
Let’s face it, World War I was not a nice war (if there are nice wars): it was fought at great cost and suffering and in the end settled nothing. Instead it set the stage for a much worse war to come.
Wasn’t the cavalier way so many horses were treated – of the 1-2 million British horses that had been sent to the front lines only about 65,000 had returned according to Lyall from an interview with the book’s author Michael Morpurgo – just as much a symbol of the immense carnage of human innocents that transpired through stalemated trench warfare in that horrible war – and others – sent to do someone else’s bidding in a war that needn’t have been fought?
Too many performances over too few days?
Or was Brantley simply suffering from an overload of too many performances and reviews in too few days? In all fairness, Brantley’s review was not the only less than stellar one War Horse has received. In an earlier critique, Guardian critic Michael Billington registered some similar objections to Brantley’s when he reviewed the play in London.
Regardless, Billington’s controversial review seemed to have had no effect on the London box office. Word had gotten around otherwise – including via a rave review in The London Times. Hopefully, that also will be the same for the Lincoln Center production. Despite the minority of naysayers, most people who have seen War Horse have given it a thumb’s up including at least one other blogger who concentrates on the New York theater scene.
But don’t just take my, Brantley, Billington or anyone else’s word: go see War Horse for yourself.
Note: War Horse is playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center.