Every year or so, London’s Royal National Theatre presents an original family-oriented play as a holiday-time entertainment. The shows are often adapted from classic children’s or young-adult literature, inventively and often elaborately staged—think Julie Taymor’s colorful quasi-cartoon worlds. The latest two in the series are currently playing on the National’s South Bank stages—a musical adaptation of that airborne Victorian fairy tale The Light Princess, with music by Tori Amos, and Emil and the Detectives, based on a juvenile thriller from Weimar-era Germany. Previous entries have included adaptations of popular fantasy books by Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett.
And then there’s War Horse. Nick Stafford’s dramatization of the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo was the National’s 2007 family offering, and was such a hit that it was first extended and then revived, and finally transferred to the West End, where it’s been running—let’s say galloping—ever since. A number of other major-city productions and international tours have spun off, including a Broadway blockbuster that ran for two years and picked up five Tonys.
It’s the story, in case you hadn’t heard, of a farm horse drafted into service on the killing fields of World War I and a young boy’s epic journey to be reunited with him. Stafford’s stage version is superior in every way to the clunky, over-sentimental original, expanding the narrative, deepening the characters and expressing even more effectively the fear and horror of the battlefield than Steven Spielberg’s 2011 big-screen rendition.
That’s thanks to the superior power of the imagination over literal imagery, and to the show’s most eye-popping triumph, created by the astonishing Handspring Puppet Company: the horses. Two of them are life-size, fully articulated people-powered machines that are so substantial they can be ridden but so lithe they can rear and canter. Fashioned from bent cane and translucent fabric, they make you believe you’re watching a moving, seeing, feeling animal even as you marvel at the human choreography that’s animating them.
I saw the original production in London, and it remains one of the most deliciously persistent memories of my theatergoing life. Our region now has two back-to-back opportunities to experience or revisit this masterpiece.
On the heels of the New York War Horse, which closed just a year ago, a touring company is now traveling the country. It stops this week at The Bushnell, Hartford’s premier grand-scale venue, for eight performances Jan. 28–Feb. 2.
And starting next month, the National’s own production will be beamed around the world from the stage of the New London Theatre via the NT Live series of high-def broadcasts. The Amherst Cinema screens it on Feb. 27, with repeat showings in March and April.
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