The remarkable Tony Award- winning drama War Horse made its Philadelphia premiere last week, when the National Theatre of Great Britain’s touring production arrived at the Academy of Music for a run through Dec. 2.
The story begins on a farm in Devon, England. It is 1912, and London has already become a Dickensian nightmare, blackened by the soot from the factories and mills that provide products for the British Empire. By contrast, the Devon countryside is devoid of workhouses. Its people are impoverished, but the air is clean, the water clear and pure, and one’s livelihood comes from the land rather than industry. (The idyllic pastoral setting is not realistically recreated in Rae’s Smith bare set, projected instead by the strong sense of community and family in the National Theatre’s formidable ensemble.)
The small village is home to the family of 16-year-old Albert (Andrew Veenstra), whose life is forever changed when his father outbids an uncle for a young racehorse at an auction in town. The purchase of the gorgeous but expensive animal makes Albert’s mother furious, but it thrills the teen. He names the horse Joey, and the pair is inseparable until war breaks out between Germany and England. Desperately in need of money, Albert’s father sells Joey to the British army, which needs horses for the cavalry. Albert is too young to serve, and after a tearful farewell, Joey is soon on a ship to France, where the Brits have engaged the Germans in the early days of World War I.
The British army, in the first war to extensively use modern weapons, is wholly unprepared for the horrors awaiting them on the other side of the English Channel. “The cavalry has no place in this war,” a British officer concludes after an attempted assault goes horribly wrong and its great steeds become entangled in the Germans’ wall of barbed wire. (Michael Morpurgo, author of the 1982 children’s novel from which the play was adapted by Nick Stafford, says it was inspired by a painting that showed horses from the British cavalry enmeshed in barbed wire during a battle in World War I. Recreated in the stage version and as difficult to watch as anything you’ve ever witnessed, this horrific scene alone makes War Horse too intense for children under 12.) And it isn’t just the horses being killed. The gallant, confident British soldiers charging across an open field on horseback with swords drawn are no match for the hail of bullets generated by the Germans’ machine guns.
As European cities are reduced to rubble and once-pristine plains become scorched and filled with craters created by artillery shells, the casualties on both sides quickly mount. Of the million horses commissioned by the British for the war, only 62,000 return. The soldiers fare even worse. Of the 65 million from multiple nations involved, 37 million perish. The factories spawned by the industrial revolution are now used to manufacture weapons that kill with frightening efficiency.
Far more than an anti-war treatise, the conflict in War Horse isn’t only between the English and Germans. The truly frightening confrontation—and the one with the farthest-reaching consequences—is mankind’s assault on nature, which is represented by the innocent horse, Joey. Through his eyes, we see the best and worst sides of human nature. Created by Handspring Puppet Company, the creature is operated by a trio of puppeteers who are both anonymous and practically invisible. Working in tandem, they bring Joey to life so artfully, he seems every bit as real as the actors with whom he shares the stage.
Despite ending on an optimistic note, War Horse leaves us shaken and disturbed. Wandering across a blackened landscape of scorched earth and rotting corpses, Joey encounters the ingenious weapons created by the finest human minds: hand grenades, flamethrowers, poison gas, armored tanks and lightweight machine guns, underscoring how, instead of using our intellectual prowess to help the earth and its inhabitants flourish, we seem intent on decimating our planet—and each other.
Although the story covers the years 1912-1916, War Horse may never speak louder than it does today. Iran is racing to develop a nuclear weapon, and America is entering its second consecutive decade at war. Though 100 years have passed since the outset of World War I, it appears that little has changed. And after viewing War Horse, one can’t help wondering if there isn’t a beautiful horse somewhere on a small farm in Afghanistan that will perish today, the victim of a drone strike that misses its intended target.
Through Dec. 2. $25-$100. Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. 215.893.1999. kimmelcenter.org