Theater’s magic brings wonderful ‘War Horse’ to life

by Mana Katsura

Special To The Japan Times

It is now 100 years since the start of World War I, which claimed close to 17 million lives before it ended in November 1918. Hence the Tokyo opening of “War Horse” — a play set during that so-called “war to end war” — serves in part as a memorial to the awful conflict.

Featuring life-size, man-powered puppets alongside its cast of actors, this thrilling work being staged in English with Japanese subtitles is based on an eponymous 1982 children’s book by the 70-year-old English author Michael Morpurgo.

Its two main protagonists are Albert, a farm boy from an English village, and the horse he raises and loves, named Joey. After Joey is taken by the army and sent to the battlefields in France, Albert joins up in order to search for him. However, amid a hell of muck and blood, Albert is wounded — but still he’s thinking about Joey. Will they ever be reunited … ?

Adapted from the original book by English playwright Nick Stafford, “War Horse” was jointly created by the Royal National Theatre in London and South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Company. Co-directed by England’s Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, this work of “visual poetry,” as some reviewers described it, opened at the National in 2007 and continues to run in the West End as well as touring internationally. Indeed, I myself have seen it in both London and New York, where each time it drew unbridled applause from audiences ranging from children to the very elderly.

Along with the powerful story, the play’s chief highlights are undoubtedly the horses, which are amazingly empathetic despite being made of bamboo and leather, as each one’s three puppeteers produce movements as subtle as the animals’ ears twitching — also snorts, neighs and whinnies that come across as pure horse. Then, when an actor mounts one of these steeds and starts to ride, the audience also feels a real sense of speed.

Meanwhile, there is such a wondrous transformation in Joey’s appearance, from his first tentative steps as a foal to becoming a full-grown horse, that at times I and many others couldn’t help but cheer. But then, as that proud animal’s body becomes haggard on the battlefield, it increasingly pains the heart as he loyally continues to do men’s bidding.

So real were these depictions, in fact, that before long I began to well up at the thought of the countless horses and other innocent animals sacrificed in humans’ bestial wars down the ages.

Lest we forget, though, another stirring element of this spectacle is the set design of Rae Smith, who won both Laurence Olivier and Tony awards for her work. Particularly poignant are her drawings leading the audience from rural idyll to bloody battlefields that are rendered as if torn from a soldier’s sketchbook and projected onto the stage’s giant backdrop.

During a visit she made to Japan in 2011, I asked Smith how she came to create those and the show’s other incomparable visual effects. Speaking modestly, she explained, “First, I researched a variety of visual and written materials to understand the situation during the world war. Then after considering the relationships between what I discovered and the times we live in today, I made many samples for costumes and sets.”

All in all, this wonderful production is a testament to the power of live theater, which — with its added auditory delights including onstage musicians playing as cast members sing narrative songs — delivers an audience experience that leaves standing Steven Spielberg’s 2011 “War Horse” movie with all its real horses and enormous cast.

Instead, in this “War Horse” puppets of horses and birds magically come to life, as do — through Joey — the souls of poor villagers, soldiers and animals all caught up in a dreadful and cruel folly not of their making.

“War Horse” runs till Aug. 24 at Tokyu Theatre Orb in Shibuya. Performances are in English with Japanese subtitles. For more details, call 03-3477-9111 or visit theatre-orb.com. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.