Britain is a small, insular isle and the British are famous for the passion of their shared hatreds (the Irish, popery, Germans, French) and their loves (gardening, dogs, horses). Horses loom particularly large in the English imagination. It’s no coincidence that Jonathan Swift, when he wanted to show a master race of super-rational beings, had them be horses in "Gulliver’s Travels". Or how blinding a stable of horses is seen as the ultimate anti-social act ("Equus").
So "War Horse", a sensation on London’s West End getting a wondrous production at Lincoln Center here (and, it seems, equally ecstatic audience reaction), continues in the English tradition of paintings, royals, songs and everything else horsey. The show shamelessly milks the love of these dedicated, intelligent and eminently noble beasts.
Whether it succeeds as theater will come down to how you view sentiment. As an avowed animal lover (vegan, anti-fur, maniacal variety), I was fully prepared to be blubbering by the last scene. That I left "War Horse" dry-eyed was a disappointment, although, judging from the sniffles all around me, maybe I missed something.
Certainly the script by Nick Stafford doesn’t spare the get-out-the-handkerchief moments. Adapted from a children’s book by British writer Michael Murpurgo, it details (over-details, I think, but more of that below) the story of Joey, part-runner (that is, hunter as in foxes), part-race horse, all thoroughbred, bought for an apparently enormous sum (I’m not up on my guinea conversion) by a drunken lout who outbids his more prosperous brother in the rural county of Devon.
The father brings the horse back home, to the great consternation of his stern, long-suffering wife, and bequeaths him to his son Albert. It’s here that the play really begins -- and should have begun. The auction scene could have been disposed of in two sentences of exposition, and the play’s overly leisurely frame and literalness to the text is its greatest handicap.
Once there, however, the waterworks will start if you’re of a sentimental nature. There’s no question that this horse is a showman determined to pull at your heartstrings like a harpist playing Wagner. Or like Lassie, Dumbo, Old Yeller or any of the other animals who have made their way into our collective imagination.
About that horse: Joey and the other horses we see later in the war scenes are everything you’ve been hearing about them. Constructed by a South African-based puppet company, he’s expressive in that profoundly anthropomorphic way horses have. The way Joey moves his head at a provocation, the flip back of his ears, his rearing up on his back legs: amazing. (That part of his make-up is leather -- torn from another large, sentient four-legged being -- is an irony only an animal nut like myself would notice, I guess.)
As graceful as the human-activated horses and the excellent cast are, however, the plot is somewhat predictable. Just as a scene that involves Joey in a fierce bet between the two estranged adult brothers ends (you won’t get any spoilers from me!), the church bells ring. "You know what that means," the town constable proclaims. "The Germans won’t leave Belgium." The lights are going out all over Europe, and the Great War has begun.