It would be impossible to spend more than 20 minutes sitting in the audience of War Horse, now at the Winspear, and not be bowled over by its excellent stagecraft. Of course, there are the celebrated life-sized puppets — not just of full-grown horses, but of foals and birds. But you can see a puppet show at any state fair midway. What makes War Horse special is the evocative way those creatures are presented.
The (for want of a better word) protagonist — the title Thoroughbred mutt Joey — is made of a pinkish metal exo-skeleton whose mechanisms (including the three actors who manipulate him) are clearly visible at all time. Plainly, as Rene Magritte might observe, “This is not a horse.” And yet for two-and-a-half hours, you believe it to be one. The first time Joey’s master, the young farmboy Albert, living in Devon, England, at the outbreak of The Great War, strokes his muzzle, you can sense the horseflesh under his hand, the warmth and force of Joey’s breath. In movies, to convince an audience of a horse storming through the fields of France, you need expensive CGI effects; onstage, you just need your imagination.
And lighting. Very, very good lighting.