Thursday, June 2, 2011

London Theatre 2011 - Part 1 - War Horse

Man, it's been a while since my regular blogging, huh? A lot has happened, not the least being a trip to Europe.

Saw three shows this trip, War Horse, Much Ado About Nothing, and Pygmalion. Comparing this run to the other two trips across the pond, it wasn't nearly as good as the Treats/Glass Menagerie/Equus year, but miles beyond the Waiting for Godot/Spring Awakening year.

We saw War Horse on Thursday night. Had to pay full price, as the show's selling so well that the TKTS booth wasn't getting tickets. So, it was a little pricey, but, get what you pay for.

I've spent a lot of time telling people about this vision of theatre that I've had. I have this idea that we can do big, expansive, epic productions if we simply allow ourselves to have faith in the imagination of our audience. That the money we spend on detailed sets and frippery is, at the end of the day, wasted. We should invest in design, and make it precise, and execute it just as precisely, but that doesn't mean we have to fill the stage with garbage that's only there to look impressive.

I love black box shows, where settings are suggested by a few well-selected set pieces. Lighting and performance encourage the audience to fill in the rest. It's pure theatre, in my mind, but it requires discipline. You have to work and think about what your show is, tear it apart, see what's absolutely necessary, and be brave enough to admit you don't need the rest.

What it does is drive your entire design process, and your choices, away from "what will impress the audience," (or, let's be honest, "the other theatre people who see the show") and to "what do we need to tell this story." If you start there, you can get as grandiose, as creative, as possible, and it won't be extraneous. It'll be a choice about the show, for the show.

I also am a big believer in focusing your script, your concept. Simplify, and not just in terms of action and character, but with emotion. I think we spend far too much fucking time trying to get the audience to think, when we can make our points far more strongly, and effectively, if we just make them feel. If you know what you want the audience to feel, you'll find that more and more of the details are just, frankly, jerking off. as I've said so many times before, theatre is entertainment, not a lecture. You'll reach your audience, interest them, if they can "feel along with" (as Harrison Ford said) the characters.

Once they care, and not on an intellectual, rational level, but in a deep-seated, primal, emotional place, your points? Your deeper mission, and the "high fiber" part of's gonna come through. It's gonna be there, and in a way that make the point personal. Your audience will fucking care about it, not because they think they ought to, but because they CARE.

This is all preamble to say that War Horse, in it's amazing glory, embodies everything I'm talking about here. It's probably the best major theatre piece I've ever seen.

Let's start with the design. Everything was functional, bits and pieces that the actors would make solid. Very early in the show, the young foal, Joey, is in a corral, with men standing around the edges as he is auctioned. The corral was there, I saw it, the men leaned on it, and it was just a bunch of sticks the actors were holding in the air. Yet the committed to it, it was a fence, a corral, and we, the audience accept that.

A door against a black area of the stage was a house.  A plow could quickly become part of the battlements. This all happened because the actors believed it, and they asked us to come along. It's so damn simple, and so few people working in this medium get it.

As the show went on, it made such wonderful use of technology I've seen elsewhere, but executed in utterly halfassed ways. Yeah, yeah, my tech instructor in college believed projections were the future of theatre, but a slide projector against a wall is just...nothing. Here we had a huge, jagged screen, mirroring a sheet ripped from a sketchpad in the show, with multiple projections and a true synch with the action of the play.

Then, of course, the puppets.

It's hard to describe how effective the puppetry was.

But again, look at the horses. There's no effort made to make them seem realistic. They are fabric and visible wood framing, the expectation is that the talent on stage, and the imagination in the audience will come together to make them alive.

I have to tell you, within 20 seconds of the foal puppet entering the stage, it sneezed while grazing, and from that moment forward, I was watching living, breathing animals on stage. It was an illusion, but one that, with some effort, and precise execution and design, is within the grasp of any level theatre with a talented, inventive team.

I won't even get into the ravens, the swallows, the Goose (which may be my favorite comedy relief character in any play, ever), or the Tank...

Oh shit...the tank was terrifying, amazing.

Then there's the story. The play is based on, yes, a children's book by Michael Morpurgo. I'm sure some will scoff at such an effort for a silly story about a boy and his horse. Here's what those dullards are missing, however; this play says more, and hits harder, in terms of making you think about what going to war actually means, the why and how that puts the men (and animals) into the middle of truly terrifying battles.

Really, the choice of World War I as the setting here is so excellent. Watching the armies trying to adapt from battles where cavalry were considered unstoppable, to a war that introduced machine guns, tanks, and poison gas, is really heartbreaking.

We wrap all of this in the tale of a boy willing to give his live for that of the horse he had raised. we follow the horse, Joey, the boy, Albert, as well as a German soldier that becomes the caretaker of the animal. Each, in turn dreams of returning home, but not all will make it. It's a tale that is simple enough to enthrall, and true enough to break your heart.

I know I was weeping though much of the show.

It does my heart proud to see this show, now open in New York, as well, and selling out on a regular basis. This is great theatre, and it represents something more than the umpteenth remount of How to Succeed in Business, or the empty calories of The Addams Family, or some other such bullshit. Not only is it great theatre, but I think it's showing us the way to how to reinvent the medium and reach out to not just ourselves, but to the general audience, without selling our souls.

I want to be in a show this good. I want to direct a show this good. If you can see it, do not hesitate.

The video? Doesn't do it justice at all.

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