London Blog Pt. 3 - "War Horse"

Goodness, this trip is going by fast. For some reason it feels like I've been here for a week but this is only the start of my third full day. But I've just fallen right into place here in London. It's amazing to me how with every trip it feels more and more like a second home. With this trip I'm getting to know a new neighborhood, I've always stayed in Holborn but this time I'm in the City. As you saw from my first post, I have the Gherkin right outside the front window, which is pretty cool.

Yesterday was a pretty chill day, between little Alex taking his naps and Alicia and I taking our time getting ready for the day we never quite got it together to go out earlier in the day. So we decided to just hang out at the flat and watch a movie. It's always a good thing to spend an afternoon with a baby sleeping on your lap and having movie time with one of your BFFs. :)

This was pretty much how we spent the day. :)
In the evening we went out to the West End to the New London Theatre in Covent Garden to see War Horse. If you ever have a chance to see a touring production you absolutely should, the show is fantastic! Though I can't imagine any theatre being better to see it in than the New London. It's not a huge theatre, and the stage is nearly a thrust with a deep apron that comes out in a large half circle into the audience. And boy do they use that stage! Anyone sitting in the front row at any point along the apron nearly had the show end up in their lap at one point or another. The cast and puppeteers really know how to use that stage so they know exactly where to stop, but you could see audience members jump back in their seats slightly at certain points.

Walking up to the New London Theatre in Covent Garden.
View from our seat. We were super close, but not so close that it made it difficult to see. And even though were were off to the side they staged the show in such a way that the action happens all over the stage and doesn't favor one side over the other.
And those puppets! OMGosh! They are so amazing. I've been fascinated/obsessed with this show for more than two years, and have showed videos from the National Theatre's YouTube channel for the show to my theatre students for the past 4 or 5 semesters. And it's always a hit with them. Within minutes of seeing the horse puppets for the first time you begin to see only the horse, the puppeteers don't blend in exactly but you notice them less and their work with the puppets more. The puppeteers work so seamlessly with the puppets that the puppets just come to life. 

The struggle I had with watching the show was that I could have absolutely let myself just get completely lost in the show (and to a certain extent I did, especially emotionally) but I was really interested in watching the puppeteers and the technical elements of the show. I know, I'm such a theatre geek at heart, I can't help it.

Technically the show is a wonder, the design and staging is fantastic. The design of the show is very abstract, so there's no realistic set, everything is mostly just a suggestion of something. A doorway and window to represent Albert's house, pinnate flags to suggest the auction where Joey the horse is purchased, wood poles held up and moved around by the ensemble to create the paddock and stable. 

The highlight is a large, jagged projection screen that represents a page from a sketchbook belonging to one of the soldiers. The screen gets used throughout the show to indicated place and time, to back up the action, and for visual effects during battles or moments of high action. All the projections look like sketched illustrations and sometimes have a flip book effect that's really cool.

The scene changes were interesting to watch and they make good use of the back and sides of the stages, which can be illuminated or darkened to display or hide action. One of the coolest moments is when they shift from little Joey, the foal to the large, grown horse puppet and it comes charging out to down center stage, rearing up to it's hind legs. It's one of those moments where you think to yourself (either at the time or later when thinking back on the show) that this is why you come to live theatre.

I still haven't seen the movie version, and after seeing the stage version I'm even more conflicted. Even though it has a relatively happy ending (as happy as a play about WWI can end) it was emotional enough to see the puppet horses go through the horrors of war. I'm not sure I could stomach it if watching a real horse in the movie. But that's one of the coolest parts about this play. You really do believe they're horses, I mean, you do if you allow for the suspension of disbelief that's required when you go see a play (which you have to allow for, otherwise you're wasting your money). Anyway, the puppets really do come to life before your eyes, the puppeteers do such an amazing job of controlling them that you can't help but believe what you're seeing and feel empathy for the animals. 

There are some very emotional moments and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel something. Telling yourself, they're just puppets, doesn't make a difference. Because at the end of it all, they're not just puppets. Those puppets represent the one million British horses that were sent over to France during WWI. Of those million, only 62,000 made it back. And that's another great thing about this show, it shows us a usually unlooked at part of history. How much do any of us know about WWI? If my college students are any indication the answer is: not very much at all. Our schools focus more on WWII but very little on WWI. But then, our schools don't focus much on world history at all, so I guess I shouldn't be so surprised. But this play does a brilliant job of bringing that history to life. Of showing how the war effected all involved, not just the British but the French who's farms were commandeered and the Germans, some who believed in the war and others who didn't. It shows the horror and atrocity of war but in a way that's still appropriate for younger audiences to see (I wouldn't take anyone younger than 9 or 10, but it's definitely a good show for pre-teens and teenagers). All in all, this show is a must watch, whether here on London or at a touring production. 

More statistics from WWI, as printed in the program book.
After the show, I picked up a few more show souvenirs, walking out with a program book, a CD recording of the music, a DVD of the making of the production, and a really cool t-shirt with the abstract design of the horse puppets printed in velvet on the cotton knit. A short tube ride down the Central Line from Holborn to Liverpool Street Station got us home and then I crashed out asleep. At the end, it was a perfect day. :)

My souvenirs from the night. 

Sheba says goodnight. :)


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