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War Horse in the UK and US

The Challenges of the Replica

When I entered the New London Theatre just near Covent Garden to see War Horse in November 2011 four years after its world premiere, the Tuesday evening performance was most assuredly sold out (if not, it was all but). The atmosphere was electric in the lobby. The buzz of the voices indicated an anticipation that sustained through the end of the show. A bit less than two years later, while attending the show’s North American Tour in Minneapolis, there was very little buzz in the audience, the large venue not sold out midway through its two-week run on a Sunday night, and the shiftiness in the seats was palpably distracting during all of Act I.

The National Theatre’s 2007 world premiere of War Horse was such a rousing success that a commercial transfer across the Thames to the New London Theatre was called to order. It has been running to sell-out crowds since 2008. Its emotional impact hits audiences like a rush. In the teens of the 20th Century, a farmer’s son, Albert, living in Dover (South East England) becomes connected to his horse, Joey, through trials and tribulations instigated by his drunken father. WWI begins with the German army invading France. Initially thought to be an easy win, the British Empire purchases horses, including Joey, to be used for the front. When it becomes clear that the war will drag on for years, underage Albert enlists, and goes on a quest to find his horse in a war that shocks the world with the destruction of the body via barbed wire, gases, and machine guns.

Puppet war horse on stage
(Photo by Eva Rinaldi)

The poignancy and philosophical consequences of this subject matter are present in the streets of London. The dramaturgy is in the architecture of the city for not only a Londoner, but also a visitor who spends more than just a passing bus tour through the winding ancient roads. For anyone attending the London production of War Horse, they have very likely had their bones doused in the historicity of the topic. Perhaps they entered the Imperial War museum, where the shock of WWI’s introduction of rapid killing machines to warfare is well documented, or saw the £2-million Animals in War Memorial, erected in 2004 during the 90th Anniversary of WWI. Perhaps even more immediately, the citizens of the British Empire are by comradeship and/or by familial descent connected to the men who fought in this war. This “Great War”, which was so terrifying to the people of the time, came to be seen as the war to end all wars for a reason.

 

The show was built for the subsidized National Theatre of Great Britain. Knowing the dramaturgy already existed in the hearts and minds of the audience, the textual and staging choices reflected that.

 

Therein lies what I believe to be the reason why the show struggled to captivate its audience on that Sunday night in Minneapolis. The show was built for the subsidized National Theatre of Great Britain. Knowing the dramaturgy already existed in the hearts and minds of the audience, the textual and staging choices reflected that. The audience would know what dark clouds of violence and philosophy loomed over the characters’ heads from before the house lights dimmed. Not much exposition would be required for an audience educated since youth on the devastating effects of this war.. This is evident in the script’s jumping between dates rather quickly, and its mere suggestions of location in the staging. A doorway, some wooden rods, and a goose puppet suggest a farm, for example. The idyllic representation of South East England and its simplistic existence in the less technological 1912 is quick and suggestive. It is rooted in the imagination, not reality.

Act I is almost entirely pre-WWI, focused on the issues in the community and the raising of the horse. The town’s specific identifying images and references, not only its dialect, are foreign to most individuals living in the Minneapolis area. This being the state of Little House on the Prairie, of course the audience would be familiar with rural lifestyles. However, America is a different place, with different traditions, kitsch images of reference, and histories/dramaturgies within the bodies of its audience. Besides, with the modern Playbill seemingly forever lacking a dramaturgical article (unless attending a not-for-profit theater like Mixed Blood or the Guthrie, which use their own private publications), no point of reference beyond the marketing’s emotions-focused rhetoric is provided.

Is it any small wonder then that this marketing rhetoric currently found on Hennepin Theatre Trust’s website (and likely all other touring venues hosting the show) provides a synopsis of only Act II, not Act I? Act II is the war portion of the story, images relatively familiar to our own war stories and films, such as Saving Private Ryan. The emotional punch shines through, since the stakes are high, and most issues are of violence or language barriers. The characters’ needs for communication and connection reach the audience’s core. The laughs from the audience were louder, the cheers rowdier, and the butts in seats stiller. This is the element of the show that seems to be the “universal” part of the evening. But waiting seventy-five minutes for Act I to finish to get there seems like a long time to wait.

 

Every pause, every quick or slow line reading, and every costume choice was built with the British audience in mind.

 

I’m suggesting that this national tour doesn’t meet the Minneapolis audience’s expectations not because it lacks ingenuity and heart, but because it is a replica of a production built for a different audience. Every pause, every quick or slow line reading, and every costume choice was built with the British audience in mind. Whilst a specific director (different from the original two at the National) has been engaged to adapt the show for a proscenium arch, this is, give or take, an exact, choreographed replica of the London production. I believe it is important for us to culturally exchange our works of art, but how do we create a better context for the audiences to engage with the content?

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I suspect part of this is also the fact that by 2013, the movie adaptation of the book was already on DVD, and goodness knows it's less expensive than going out to the theatre. That's one reason my son was uninterested in seeing the live version, even though he'd read the book in school months before. He was far more interested in seeing stories on a stage that he couldn't see elsewhere, didn't matter if it was a different adaptation/variation/technique. (Yes, he's an outlier having grown up in a theatre company, but I've heard much the same from local audiences around here. A dollar at a Redbox for the whole family is more appealing than a few hundred. Plus, Cumberbatch!)

Here's the thing though. A good story shouldn't need dramaturgical notes to be effective or gripping. (Note: I'm not a fan of this play, though the puppetry & design is beautiful.) Downton Abbey isn't a hit on this side of the pond because we're intimately aware of English country house life in the 1910s-1920s. It hasn't been rethought or restaged for American audiences, yet it still seems to connect. Conversely, the Little House books are popular around the world without being rethought or rewritten. We generally learn what context we need for the story from the story itself. Additional detail is nice after the fact, but it's incidental to the experience of the story.

I have colleagues involved in the production and so am posting anonymously... The problem is misdiagnosed in the above. I saw the tour as well and had my own ambivalent response. From my perspective the problem is not that the play was made for a different audience. The problem is that it was made with different artists who have long since moved on to other things. So you have actors who were not part of the initiating act of creation trying to find their way into the center of a play that was made without them. This does terrible things to plays. And you can end up with a production, as is the case with the tour of WAR HORSE, that feels tin-eared and out of tune.

Not sure what you mean by "traditional Western theater", but War Horse had a sit-down production in Toronto at the Princess of Wales - which has a proscenium arch.