War Horse, the novel, can trace its roots to a pub in south west England

Actors: Andrew Veenstra, Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton & Rob Laqui

Photography by: Brinkhoff/MoGenburg

You have probably noticed that in many of my articles over the past 25 years that I have written for the Rossmoor News, I have always tried to include a little backstory about the play, the events or time in history surrounding the creation of the play or events in the author’s life that may have had a bearing on the creation of the play I am reviewing. This week’s review sheds some light on how loosely gathered stories can provide the bits and pieces of real life that can be artfully woven into an exciting story, play or movie, perhaps even all of the above!

The SHN Curran Theater opened its doors this past week to host the much heralded and anxiously awaited Tony award winning stage production of “War Horse”. This fictional tale of the love, admiration and loyalty between a young British farm boy and his horse, is a remarkable, ingenious and beautifully staged story extracted from a fictional novel published in 1982 by Michael Morpurgo. The backstory was revealed recently in an interview with Morpurgo, in which told of various stories shared with him by several World War I veterans, as they socialized in The Duke of York Inn, in the little town of Iddesleigh, in South Western England where Morpurgo lives and writes his novels. Several stories evolved from former cavalry officers and yoemen (volunteer cavalrymen who supplied their own horses and equipment), who served in France during the First World War. The told many tales about the horrors experienced by the cavalryman and horses alike, suffered during that inhumane campaign.

In a separate enterprise, Morpurgo founded “Farms for City Children” with his wife, a charity which gives inner city children a chance to live and work on a rural farm for a week. In an interview on BBC Radio 4, he recounted one of the events that convinced him he could write his book about a war horse. One of the children who came to the farm from Birmingham, a boy called Billy, - - had a terrible stutter and after two years in school, hadn’t spoken to another human being, child or adult. Morpurgo recounted,“I came in the last evening, which I always used to do, to read them a story. It was a dark November evening and I came into the yard behind this big Victorian house where they all live, and there he was, Billy, standing in his slippers by the stable door and the lantern above his head, talking. Talking, talking, talking, to a horse. And the horse, Hebe, had her head out of, just over the top of the stable, and she was listening, that’s what I noticed, that the ears were going, and she knew - I knew she knew - that she had to stay there whilst this went on, because this kid wanted to talk, and the horse wanted to listen, and I knew this was a two way thing. - -“. That is what convinced Morpurgo he could tell this story of an incredible bond between a boy and his horse, a bond so strong that when the horse was sold to the Cavalry, the boy lied about his age so that he could join the Army and find the horse he loved, a horse he had promised that he would never allow anything bad to happen to.

The novel begins with a story demonstrating intense sibling rivalry between two antagonistic brothers, Arthur Narracott, (Brian Keane) who had become a very successful farmer and property owner, and the other, Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris), who (in large part due to his propensity for drinking), was barely able to survive on his little farm. At a country horse sale, the two brothers again crossed swords as they began to compete for a hunter foal (a pleasure horse) that Arthur wanted to purchase as a gift for his son, and the other brother, Ted, simply wanted just to spite his older brother and outbid him. It took all of the money that the younger brother had set aside to make his mortgage payment on his farm, but he foolishly “beat out his brother”, creating a great hardship at home and an even greater animosity between the dueling brothers.
A short time later, following another evening of drinking excessively in the local pub, the two brothers ran into each other and the older brother queried his younger brother as to why he had so foolishly spent so much money on a horse ill-suited for farm work. The drunken younger brother made a bet with his older brother, that he could train this horse, now known as Joey, to pull a plow, to make it a work horse. Brother Ted tried and failed to make the horse do his bidding. He then turned to his son, Albert (Andrew Veenstra), who had trained the horse himself as a riding horse, promising him that if he could train the horse to work in harness and win his father’s bet, the father would give the horse to the son. The son accomplished the miracle, won the bet and was given the Joey, or so it seemed.

A short time later, Great Britain declared war against Germany. A big part of the Army at this time was the Cavalry element, and the Cavalry sent buyers out into the country to purchase horses. When the purchasing officer saw how beautifully Joey performed, he offered a premium price for the horse. The father couldn’t resist the money, went back on his word and sold his son’s horse to the Army. The distraught son was assured by the purchasing officer that he would take good care of the horse and that he was sure that the war would be short lived. He promised that Joey would soon be returned to his home in the countryside. But the war dragged on and the still heartbroken and distraught son, now totally alienated from his father, lied about his age and ran away from home and joined the war effort, in hopes of finding Joey and eventually bringing him safely home. The remaining story takes us through numerous battles, scenes of death and destruction as horses, men and civilians are displaced and destroyed.

The miraculous and highly improbable story evolves through this boy’s loss and the horse’s eventual rescue. In and of itself the story is not the real winner in this production. What really makes it successful is the incredible marriage of story, terrific actors, superb lighting, multi-media animation and projected imagery, clever staging and most important of all, the introduction and choreography of bigger than life animal puppets. The horses, birds and even a badgering goose take on a sense of reality that is truly astounding, and had I not seen it myself, I would not have believed puppetry could possibly be this superb. Even the design and construction of the puppet horses has to be the pinnacle of puppetry design. This production is perhaps to my way of thinking a new day, a new dawn in theatrical puppetry!

The creators of the puppets, including Joey, is a company by the name of the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, a company that is gaining international recognition as the very best in its field. “War Horse” is without a doubt a major contribution to the elevation of theatrical art. It is an artistic wonder; dramatic, suspenseful, spellbinding, exhilarating and a marvel of theatrical magic. To see puppets of this caliber, puppets that an actor could actually ride upon, is worth the price of admission itself.

"War Horse" continues Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through September 9th in the Curran Theater at 445 Geary Street (between Mason and Taylor) in San Francisco. Tickets range between $31 and $100 each. They can be purchase on line at shnsf.com or by phone at (888) 746-1799. For more informatin visit www.shnsf.com/online/warhorse. The last word : Don’t miss this one!