LONDON, UK—Joey is a horse and Joey is a puppet. For some people any horse is special. For some people any puppet named Joey is special. For some people anything named Joey is special. And Joey is each to all.

War Horse is the story of a horse and his boy, of mankind and his sin, and of men and their loves. While children may appreciate cute sections of the play, language, violence, and a rather serious theme may distance them even if it entertains them.

War Horse
National Theatre, London
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris

The opening scene is an unsteady pony making its way across the stage. Constructed of a minimal frame of wood with a thin layer of fabric underneath, the contraption looks more like a bamboo chair surrounded by three people. At first it looks like they’re helping the horse along, but it is these three who bring the puppet to life, making it run, whinny, and shudder. It moves with them and breathes with them. No effort is taken to disguise the puppeteers. They wear clothes fitting to the play. At first I found this distracting, like the minimal frame of the horse, but soon they faded to the background. Their faces and bodies only moved as much as they needed to move in order to animate the horse. I forgot about the puppeteers, I forgot about the puppet. I only saw Joey the horse. He stumbled feebly, he looked about nervously. He was no puppet.

His dramatic maturation brings out an incredible life-size horse, managed by three men, two within the body, one managing the horse’s head. Not only do these three fade into the background, but the actors even ride the horses. They stamp, they sneeze, they storm. And you forget it’s a puppet run by people in a play. The puppets are horses—or more accurately, persons.

The variety of the scenery is incredible and the entire work is sublimely minimalist. Cutouts cast shadows on the wall of stampeding cavalry and storming troops. What are walking sticks transform into fences in the blink of an eye at the hands of background figures. Even the fences are puppets. There are no buildings and no huge set. The puppets are the center of the entire play, and they are magnificent. Puppets are clearly puppets, but clearly with souls bigger and better than mine.

Joey is raised by a young boy named Albert and the two have a wonderful relationship. Playful and serious, fun and caring—the kind to die for. Without spoiling the story, the horse goes to war and Albert is left behind. The rest of the story is that of a boy struggling for his horse and a horse for his master in the midst of war. Guns, cannon, and tanks—yes, on the stage—make their appearance.

War Horse
War Horse, currently playing at London’s National Theatre.

The story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Everything from the playful puppet goose to the perturbing, pallid ghost synthesizes into the play’s profound gravity. The melodic verses by John Tams are beautiful, usually performed by a soloist with a superbly clean voice off to the side of the stage as background music for the especially touching scenes. The play opens and closes with the same song: “Only Remembered,” a pastoral ballad juxtaposed with the horrific machinery of war:

Fading away like the stars in the morning
Losing their light in the glorious sun
Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling
Only remembered for what we have done

War Horse evokes classical feelings of honor, contemporary fidelity to democracy, and cautious criticisms of war. The hero of the story is an animal—an animal who unites German and Briton, enemy and enemy. In the story of Troy, it was a horse which won the war. In this story, it is a horse which transcends the war. One is reminded that horses are in heaven, and that it was us, not they who were cast out of Eden. There is a bestial loyalty and humanity above our human alliances and kindnesses. It was, after all, man who fell, not horses.

One of the play’s most sympathetic characters is the horse-loving German, who is horrified at the “barbaric” treatment of the obsolete cavalry against the inhumane implementation of barbed wire and the advent of trench warfare. After all, a good man is kind to his animals, and good men are united through this horse. How we treat the helpless reveals our souls, and we see good and bad, beautiful and ugly. There is good, there is evil, and there are horses caught in the middle of our crimes.

I’ve already told friends that War Horse is better than words, and it is. It touches on the mysteries of existence, sin, and love. It is honor in agony, beauty in death, symphony in cacophony, tranquility in chaos, love in the ruins.

Stewart Lundy is a senior writer for Patrol.

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