Tuesday, 20 September 2011

War Horse, but not the movie.

I’ve been involved in theatre in various ways over the years, writing, directing and acting in plays, watching performances by amateurs and professionals, and scratching my head at some of the things critics have raved about.

There was a time when we’d arrange to go to London for the weekend and cram in as many plays as we could. In those days it wasn’t cheap but at least you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to get even the cheapest ticket. The problem was, though, that much of what we’d actually chosen to see – because it had been recommended, well reviewed, or featured a favourite actor or director – was crap. The house lights went down, the curtain went up and, within 10 minutes, we knew we’d condemned ourselves to an hour or so of purgatory until the first interval set us free.

Simon Russell Beale was brilliant in Richard III but we sat through all of his Hamlet getting more and more angry at the sight of the actors going through the motions. An American visitor in front of us fell asleep very early only to leap to her feet and applaud wildly when it was over. All the critics had said it was a brilliant production so I suppose, even though audiences were bored out of their skulls by the insults to their intelligence they were seeing, they were afraid to disagree with the arbiters of taste and excellence.

But that’s just one example, and I’m just saying this to admit that, much, maybe even most of the time, theatre is embarrassingly bad. And that’s a great shame because when it works, it’s unbeatable. Sam West’s Hamlet was a triumph – it made you leave the theatre thinking you were somehow complicit in the nasty politics that had gone on onstage.

Last Friday, though, with my son, I went to the New London theatre to see War Horse, and, for nearly three timeless hours, I forgot who I was and was grabbed by the experience and dragged through most of the emotions of which I’m capable. The movie may prove to be brilliant – it’s Spielberg after all – but the beautiful horses he’ll have gathered for his shots won’t have anything like the realism and character that the puppeteers managed to give those on the stage. In every single way, the performances, the effects, the sounds and music, the wholeness of the thing were astonishing. We watched a cavalry charge in World War I, horses fighting for supremacy in a paddock, the transformation of an awkward young colt into a big thoroughbred in an instant – and all of these creatures were being manipulated by people. But, within minutes, I stopped seeing the people and only saw horses.

I always make my blogs too long and, if I tried to convey even a part of the full experience, I’d need this to be even longer, so take a quick look at this trailer for the stage play, not the movie, and you’ll get a tiny fraction of a glimpse of a mind-blowing experience (my words are so inadequate for things such as this). It’s beyond analysis so, if you get the chance to see it on stage, sell everything you have to get a ticket. It's an astonishing, visceral, truly cathartic experience.

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  1. How I regret not knowing about this when I was in London. I would have loved this experience.

  2. I know. I should have thought of it. The film trailer looks good, but it's the magic of the puppet horses that makes it so immediate in the theatre. I'd be amazed if this didn't get to the USA though.

  3. I would also call it unmissable, but maybe not as unmissable as Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, featuring a wonderful performance by Mark Rylance. It starts a second run in London in October. Diane, maybe you can get a two for one deal.

  4. Thanks, Ron. That's the one that got rave reviews on Broadway, too, isn't it? I bet it gets sold out quickly but I'll try to see it.

  5. I had both of those experiences when I was in the UK. Had an exciting night for Miss Saigon in London and then nearly fell asleep during Twelfth Night in Stratford-upon-Avon. I managed to hold on for the good stuff while others around me were nodding off. This sounds like a must-see.

  6. It is, Marley. I'll give you your money back if you don't enjoy it. Er ... wait a minute, if the 'money' involves fares from Louisiana to London, I may have to reconsider.