Hot to trot: Can War Horse survive the hype?

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Andrew Veenstra rides Joey, an extraordinary puppet creation operated by John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger in the national touring production of War Horse at the Curran Theatre. BELOW: Grayson DeJesus (left) sits astride Topthorn while Michael Wyatt Cox rides Joey into a World War I battle. Photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

As a showcase for mind-blowing stagecraft, you will not find a better example than War Horse, the National Theatre of Great Britain hit that is trampling audience’s tear ducts around the world. Everything you’ve heard about the life-size horse puppets from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company is true – there isn’t a more powerful fusion of design, movement and emotion on a stage anywhere. The horses – and especially the puppeteers who bring them to life – balance the weight of imagination and reality with such skill that the pretend beasts are the most vital beings on stage (not to slight the capable human cast, but the horses win by more than a nose).

Now at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season, War Horse arrives with a staggering amount of hype. The show won every major award for its original London production and captured five Tony Awards for its Broadway incarnation (both productions, by the way, are still packing them in). Steven Spielberg was so impressed by the show he put a movie version of Michael Morpurgo’s original young adult novel on the fast track (the film was released last December and received mixed reviews).

And now War Horse is finding its way around the world. Is the show everything we’ve been led to expect? The answer is yes. And no.

This production, originally directed by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott and for the tour by Bijan Sheibani, is a massive machine, impressive for its choreography not only of the horses but also of the entire company as it creates everything from a tense stand-off in an unplowed field to no man’s land in the trenches of World War I France. A giant video screen stretches across the top of the stage and, using the style of pencil sketches in a sketchbook brought to life by computer animation (the work of 59 Productions), helps convey details of the setting and set the time frame (from 1912 to war’s end in 1918). Nearly constant stage smoke helps intensify and dramatize the complex lighting design by Paule Constable (adapted by Karen Spahn), which makes the battle scenes feel like a cross between a Who concert and Disney theme park spectacle.

In fact, though War Horse is a play (with period songs and a pre-recorded, movie-like score by Adrian Sutton), it feels a whole lot like a musical, but in place of show-stopping song-and-dance numbers, you have show-stopping horses.

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There’s a lot of flash in this 2 1/2-hour production, a lot of theatrical muscle. But all of that is in service to a story that feels much smaller than the production itself. Not unlike Disney’s stage version of The Lion King which suffers from a similar problem and uses puppetry (among other theatrical tricks) to help overcome this discrepancy.

It’s not that the story of a boy, Albert (Andrew Veenstra) and his beloved horse, Joey, isn’t involving or touching – it is, and just about anybody is liable to get choked up or even shed a few tears as this bonded couple is separated by war. The horrors of war are front and center but not in a terribly graphic or shattering way, and in Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s book (in association with the folks at Handspring), there’s a distinct lack of complexity in the relationships or the plot. In fact, it’s safe to say when the horses aren’t on stage, the show loses momentum in spite of the production’s hardworking machinery.

But the horses are on stage a lot, and they are beyond magnificent. Joey’s entrance – when the story moves ahead in time and turns him from a foal into a stallion – is dazzling. There are many such moments in the show, including a battle between Joey and a black stallion named Topthorn and a harrowing scene involving horses and barbed wire. And the bond between Albert and Joey is palpable and deep, a connecting point for anyone who has ever bonded with an animal large or small. It’s nice to see that kind of relationship portrayed with such integrity on a stage.

At the end of the ride, War Horse may not be a profound play, but there’s no denying it is pure, thrilling theatrical magic.

[bonus interviews]

I chatted with the creative minds behind War Horse for several features in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Read all about Handspring Puppet Company here.
Read all about author Michael Morpurgo and co-director Tom Morris here.


War Horse continues through Sept. 9 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $31-$100. Call 888-746-1799 or visit