Anything I say about War Horse must be caveat-ed with the following statement: I hate Steven Spielberg. When I was a child, I watched ET. When it was over I turned to my mother and said "That was totally illogical and made no sense." Well, I might not have said that exactly but that was how I felt. I have been a Spielberg hater since then.
Filmmaking is supreme manipulation. There are great artists such as Hitchcock who control what you see and experience in every frame. But for some reason it always felt seamless and masterful with Hitchcock. Whereas with Spielberg, it always felt controlling and unfair. Like he doesn't trust his audience is smart enough to follow along. He can't just sit back and let you experience his films. He has to guide you with such rigorous control that I just cannot stand it. It's like A Clockwork Orange for me. Spielberg has little vice grips on my eyelids and will only let me see what he wants me to see. Also he's a sentimental hack.
Which brings me to War Horse. Spielberg is making the movie version of War Horse and that makes complete sense. War Horse is about as subtle as an anvil dropped on a Looney Tunes character and it is unabashedly sentimental. And there is nothing wrong with that...unless you are me. This is not my kind of theater.
The puppetry is amazing. It takes a substantial number of artists and performers to make that stage magic come alive. I thought the projections in this production were also used to excellent effect. They were beautiful and appropriate for the production. The staging is impressive. People emerging from the mist etc...
So what's my complaint? Well no one bothered to write a play. The woman sitting behind me at the performance I saw said at intermission that the show was "indescribable." This is the MOST describable show ever performed. Lady I can name this show in 6 notes (remember that old game show...no...just me...sigh). A horse who goes to war. There are 4 possible story outcomes in this simplistic tale. 1) Dead horse, dead boy; 2) Dead horse, live boy; 3) Live horse, dead boy; 4) Live horse, live boy. (I wish it was a choose your own adventure but alas it is not).
Almost all the characters (save one sympathetic German--my WWII vet grandfather literally just flipped in his grave and will be haunting me in my dreams tonight) are caricatures and not fully-realized characters (actually I am not sure if was the writing or the performance of this character that rose above the fray for me). The horses have more character than the humans and maybe that's the point. The horse lobby convinced the National Theatre that humans normally get all the good writing and here finally was a horse-driven show, for horses, by horses.
Also there is a woman who sings dirges throughout the show. Who doesn't love a good dirge? (Hint: Me).
Everyone in the audience was a sobbing puddle of humanity at the end of the show. I was worried my eyes might get stuck in their permanently-rolled position at the end of the show. I think if you can forgive the show for its lack of writing then you will enjoy it. This show provides top tier spectacle. Just not my cup of tea.