My baby sister got married this weekend, so Tashi and I went over to England for the first time in about four years (Bexy couldn't come because she had to have her appendix out, and Wolfgang stayed with her because it's miserable enough being in hospital without knowing the rest of your family is gallivanting about dancing at weddings). It was a lovely wedding, and it was lovely to see everyone again. They tied the knot in the church where my father had been a priest when he died, and after the ceremony one of my sisters and I went off into the graveyard to visit him, only to find that most of the family had had the same idea, so we took photos of all the visitors clustered round the headstone. The junior members of the party were practising their literacy skills on the gravestones nearby, so instead of saying "Cheese!" we all said "Gone but not forgotten!"
The next day we went back to London to see War Horse (I'd booked the tickets following grondfic
's glowing recommendation) and I'm happy to report that it's everything it's cracked up to be. The play itself isn't all that good (okay, it's for kids, but it's still a bit cliched and superficial, and the storyline is stretched out so thin it's almost invisible), and the acting wasn't particularly impressive, but the production itself is absolutely magical. It's distilled essence of theatre, where the whole point is not that you put reality on stage, or even things that look like reality, but the actors assert "This thing here is actually something else" and produce the feeling
of reality. It's all summed up in the horses. The horses are amazing. They don't look very like real horses - they deliberately look like puppets, with a sort of wooden frame/skeleton lined with netting that does nothing to disguise the presence of three operators, one of whom isn't even underneath the horse (I should say here that we were right in the front row, with our noses up against the stage - you probably couldn't see the mechanics quite so clearly from further back, so the illusion would have been stronger, but we had the advantage of seeing every tiny detail of how things worked).
The equine hero, Joey, in a fight with his rival Topthorne, who becomes a friend. The humans are the operators, not characters in the play.
You'd never mistake them for real horses, until they start to move. When they moved, it was impossible not
to imagine that they were real. The way their chests heaved when they were frightened, the order their legs moved in, the head, the tail, the ears (there are one or two moments when everything on stage is utterly still, and then one horse moves one ear and the auditorium erupts with laughter).
The whole production is built around these two levels of artifice and truth. The set is all black, the stage itself a thick lumpy black, like mud, that disappears into darkness, from which the characters emerge, like the bird in Plato's cave, before disappearing into blackness again. Overhead is a strip of white, like a piece of paper torn from a book, or a patch of sky, and this was used to project sketches of the countryside, English and French, and scribbled dates and place names. Very occasionally, a prop appeared - a door to signify the entrance to a farm house, a cannon for the horses to pull, and in one memorable scene, a tank, made of thick strips of metal. It didn't look any more like a real tank than the horses looked like real horses, but it was terrifying. The lighting was very pure, mostly just shades of white, with the occasional use of orange for warmth, especially on Joey. In the scene where Joey gets caught on barbed wire, the light spilled out from behind him onto the audience in front, and since I was sitting over to the side I could see them clearly. One little girl, aged about seven, had her hands pressed against her mouth in an agony of empathy. You could see the barbed wire wasn't real - it was being pulled about the stage by actors in order to entangle the horse - but that didn't matter, because she could imagine it so clearly.
And that, really, is the essence of theatre. Chorus says in Henry V, "Think when we speak of horses that you see them." And we did. Every one of us saw them, through the medium of those bits of wood and netting. And we also saw the Great War, emerging for a brief moment out of the darkness of almost a hundred years of history. There are some really magnificent set pieces, including a cavalry charge in which a Captain is blown off his horse in slow motion, lifted through the air by two actors, his arms and legs stuck out like a starfish against the back-lighting. But the real vision of hell comes when a cannon is pulled onto the stage by two starving and exhausted horses. I don't think I've ever seen a theatrical moment to equal the power of that sequence. It was utterly stunning, and yet it was made by nothing but a few actors and two puppets against a white light.
Joey and Topthorne are set to work pulling the cannon after one of the draught horses has died.
I know a lot about the First World War. I don't suppose most of the children in the audience knew anything about it at all. But what we saw on stage was the feeling
of the war. Not the gore and the yucky realism of cinema, but what it felt
like to be there, with the wire and the mud and the machine guns, the gas and the shells and the corpses, the horror, the cruelty, the waste, but also the bravery, the camaraderie and the love. It was absolutely amazing.
Steven Spielberg is apparently going to film War Horse. I don't know how he'll do with it, but I do know one thing. It will be nothing like this production. It can't be. This is theatre, through and through. You couldn't begin to do it this way with film.