Warhorse and war stories

WarHorse head shot

WarHorse head shot

Went off to see WarHorse at the National Theatre with my Mum, which we’d both been very excited about for months (that’s how long you have to wait for tickets). It’s a great combination of animal puppetry and mechanical sets that is let down by a fairly one dimensional script and some pretty average acting. So a bit like Pearl Harbour or, frankly, every Michael Bay movie.

The puppets are fantastic, although calling them puppets does them a great disservice as it conjours up images of poncey wire-controlled oldies like Andy Pandy and Pinocchio. The animals here are more like Stan Winston anamatronics but without any of the computerised bits and pieces. And it’s amazing how these skeletal segments of horse quickly become as emotive and lifelike as the real things.

All of which makes the story and the acting that much more unimpressive. There’s something fundamentally lacking in the story, namely any sense of conflict or drama (or indeed antagonist and protagonist). It’s like one of those incredible animal stories where the Dog and the Cat and the Mouse are unceremoniously granny dumped by their once loving owners and have to somehow trek hundreds of miles through the wilderness to find their way miraculously to the family’s new home three states away. As the trio romp their way across scenic views of middle America you realise that there’s something fundamentally missing, it’s just a progression of scenes as narrated by a six year-old. “And then the mouse does this and then the cat did that and..” A flat plateau of stuff happening before your eyes. Events acted out with no depth or dimension, devoid of meaning or import.

And while that’s OK for messers Dog, Cat and Mouse and their six year-old wild eyed audience, it’s a bit tedious in a full on play for older people. Robert McKee in Story explains that all story is essentially conflict and that all character is defined by action. It’s the central tenet of story that the characters change and evolves as a result of their activities throughout the story and that these changes are the result of their own actions. Stuff doesn’t simply happen to characters, they’re not flotsam at the mercy of events. This simply reinforces the sense of emptiness in WarHorse. There are few characters who are in conflict and there’s certainly no protagonist or antagonist driving the story. Which means there’s really no development of character, no change in state and no sense of resolution. Sure Joey, the WarHorse of the title, is sold, goes off to war and, ultimately comes back, but it’s just a progression of events with no meaning behind it. Joey doesn’t change, isn’t changed by his experiences and neither are any of the characters we see. Ultimately you feel wholely unmoved as everyone just slots back into the lives they had before the war.

And it illustrates to me the profound lack of quality in the theatre. If this is supposed to be great quality theatre, then why do I end up just feeling emotionally uninvolved? Why is this less satisfying than a good DVD? Is it because the acting is all big mouthed and over-alliterated speech patterns – ‘I say, can you hear me actoring at the back?’. You get the distinct impression that all the actors here are refugees from the harder world of television (and the unachievable world of film). It’s no wonder that real actors are able to wipe the floor with these people.

All of which makes the puppetry all the more astounding. These puppets each have more character in them than all the actors combined, the stage set has more imagination than the cast.

Which brings me to another really irritating thing about the National and the South Bank as a whole. The one thing I really wanted to do afterwards was sit down, have a drink and talk about the play. What does the National do? Same as the BFI, same as the whole South Bank, it shuts the bars and funnels its audience out into the night, which is essentially the same thing as telling them all to fuck off home because there’s nowhere to go on the South Bank after about 10pm (arguable to say there’s nowhere to go before 10pm either). It just seems mad to me. Why not keep the bars open a little longer, suck up the last vestiges of cash from your punters and encourage them to enjoy the social experience of going out rather than sending them home with a slap round the head and the ring of contempt in their ears? Sure, not everyone would stay, but some of the people who’d come with friends might actually enjoy the experience a little more.