Friday, March 2, 2012

Toronto’s production of War Horse: Much Spectacle But Not Much Heart

Alex Furber and 'Joey' in Toronto's production of War Horse (Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

Toronto is a theatre town that's used to hoopla, but the first Canadian production of War Horse to hit the city has pulled out all the stops. Opening night, reportedly attended by Canada’s Governor General, was glitzy and glamourous and certainly the cavernous 2000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre was a perfect venue for this larger-than-life production. And though much of it was impressive and even occasionally awe-inspiring, I’m not sure that the spectacle didn’t overwhelm the human core of the play.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book about a young boy’s relationship with a beloved horse, Joey, who is requisitioned for the cavalry at the outbreak of the First World War, War Horse, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, is, at heart, a love story between human and equine, with classic obstacles put between the two before they can hope to end up back together. Obviously, utilizing real horses on stage would be close to impossible so South Africa’s Handspring Theatre Company and Britain’s National Theatre crafted a unique approach to the material, with puppeteers and humans combining to create figures that very quickly convince you that you’re viewing real life animals on stage. The horse puppetry is remarkable, as is the recreation of an ill-tempered duck and even some vultures, and the show’s all Canadian cast certainly does its utmost to command the stage.

Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris ably utilize all facets of their theatrical environment: from a backdrop, looking like a map, that emphasizes dates and places of the action and occasionally functions as a movie screen complete with appropriate sound effects; to the aisles, as various characters run though the audience to leap atop the stage as they make the most dramatic of entrances. And for the most part, War Horse does a great job of transporting the audience to early 20th century England and France, site of some of the war’s most calamitous battles. The carnage and sheer bloodiness of World War One is also powerfully depicted. The puppets and the humans either manipulating them or encased within their “skin” fully inhabit their roles and keep you watching. It’s only after a while that you start to wonder if there’s anything more to the play than its effects and pyrotechnics. The answer, unfortunately, at least in this local production, is not much, though the creative team is the same as the one which staged the show in London's West End and on Broadway.

It’s perhaps inevitable that when a play’s special effects are so elaborate and gigantic that its smaller human-sized dimensions might be eclipsed in the process of putting it together. They certainly are here, but, except for a few of the performances – Alex Furber as the determined Albert Narracott, Joey’s young owner; Patrick Galligan as Friedrich Müller, a German officer who tries to help Joey survive the war, and becomes a deserter in the process; and Tamara Bernier-Evans as Albert's long suffering mother Rose – the rest of the cast registers little impact nor do their characters seem etched all that well. (Richard McMillan, as Albert’s Uncle Arthur, seems to exist merely as a contrast to Albert’s drunk of a father, Ted (Brad Rudy), and doesn’t fit into the play as a whole. It’s no surprise that his character was created for the show and doesn’t exist in Murpurgo’s book or in the fine Steven Spielberg film adaptation.) Some of the cast’s enunciation is faulty, too, a common problem these days when too many thespians tend to swallow their words on stage. I could also have done without the songs, sung poorly by Melanie Doane and Tatjana Cornij, which are supposed to lend a fable-like patina to the tale but which seem more like an ill-conceived theatrical conceit. Some of the production’s faults can also be attributed to its unwieldy shifting from scene to scene.

Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Eventually, even War Horse’s special effects become tiresome, wearing out their welcome with one too many very loud scenes of explosions and fireworks making the point over and over again that war is hell on humans and animals alike. I get it. Move on please. A little subtlety would have been welcome here. I suspect the thinness of the material – this is not a play whose book flows very smoothly or links its various protagonists all that well, as in its conclusion which dispenses with Albert’ and his father’s estrangement – is meant to be hidden under the bombast and sheer large scale of the production, or at least buried enough so as to, hopefully, go unnoticed. But this War Horse turns one-note pretty fast.

At this point, I should add that having seen the film and perused the book (which is told from the point of view of Joey), it's noteworthy that director Steven Spielberg and his screenwriters, Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, did a better job of capturing the emotional core of the short novel and of adhering to the through line of Albert’s long and arduous quest to find Joey. (The play seemed to forget that from time to time.) It’s not surprising that the movie, which interestingly is more faithful to the novel than the play is, has received short shrift from the critics, who generally have a hate-on for the filmmaker. But any suggestion that the movie is too sentimental – its main knock among my colleagues, who may or may not have seen the play – ignores the fact that the play ends on the same high, happy note as the movie and also fails to acknowledge that the movie adaptation is just as tough-minded and realistic as the theatrical rendition of the book. Where the play differs most from the film is in its caustic tone, but the majority of the play’s changes from the book – the unnecessary insertion of Arthur, the (clumsy) staging of Müller’s decision to desert – don’t help matters much.

Truth be told, if you value theatre, at its finest, as a repository for stories and situations that have a visceral impact and appreciate it for powerful emoting that rivets ones’ attention, the Mirvish production of War Horse, except for a couple of scenes, generally falls short and can be given a miss. However, if spectacle in of itself is your bag, than this one’s for you.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He is currently teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, which began on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. I thought War Horse was full of heart! My favorite play!