The novel, movie and stage versions of War Horse are as different as apples and oranges and, oh, carrots.
Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel for young people is told from the point of view of Joey, a British farm lad’s beloved horse sent into battle in France during World War I. Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated 2011 film is a beautiful, harrowing and ultra-realistic treatment of Joey’s story. And the stage version, which came to life at London’s Royal National Theatre in 2007 and went on to win the best play Tony Award in 2011?
That War Horse is an example of theatrical craftsmanship and magic of the highest order.
War Horse, which begins a two-week run on Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, is an extraordinary piece of theater, in no small part because Joey and his rival-turned-friend Topthorn are portrayed by life-sized puppets. But before you cringe or think that the stage War Horse sounds like something for kids, think again. Chances are you’ve never seen a “puppet” as strikingly sculptural yet persuasively alive as the ones Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler created for War Horse.
In truth, if not for the South African pair and their Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company, the hugely successful stage version of War Horse and Spielberg’s subsequent movie might not exist at all.
Tom Morris, an associate director at the National, was looking for pieces to develop in 2004. He and executive director Nick Starr went to Cape Town to see a play featuring a life-sized giraffe puppet created by Handspring. On that flight, the director read a copy of Morpurgo’s novel (written 22 years earlier) because his mother had suggested it might be good material for a future project. Thus began a three-year developmental process, leading to a play that exceeded anyone’s expectations; as Starr said recently from London, “It’s impossible to think up a success like that.”
War Horse was put together at the National Theatre Studio, an arm of the government-subsidized theater and a place in which theater artists can experiment without the pressure of a looming opening night. In the first workshop at the start of 2005, Kohler and Jones worked with actors and simple puppets. As the project grew, Marianne Elliott joined Morris as co-director, playwright Nick Stafford was hired to adapt Morpurgo’s novel, and designer Rae Smith was tasked with developing the look of the show.
A key challenge for Stafford was the change in perspective from the novel to the stage.
“It was decided that the horse wouldn’t speak, so you have a shift in perspective from first to third person,” Stafford said by phone from London. “The horse became a character in the larger story. … He was de-anthropomorphized.”
Morpurgo was concerned at first when he heard that Joey and Topthorn would be portrayed by life-sized puppets operated by a trio of actors.
“I thought of the characters in pantomimes — a cloth horse,” the author said on a visit to Fort Lauderdale when the War Horse tour was announced. “I said no, no pantomime horse. Then I saw the giraffe Handspring made, and it brought tears to my eyes. Three people became one. They made this creature live.”
Starr describes the National’s War Horse as “a real act of collaborative storytelling. It’s a sophisticated version of folk art, the story of a boy who is on a quest.”