Tuesday, February 23, 2010

War Horse: a theatrical Avatar?

A simple question that Sid and I ask each other after watching a film, play or art show is: “Was there anything you didn’t get?” Our attempts to figure out what we didn’t get invariably lead us to new insights, ideas and notions about life around us. And to us that is the value of the artistic experience: of course, it is about the visual, but it is also about discovering something new about the way we view the world.

It is in the latter that War Horse – the most successful theatrical production in the history of the National Theatre, which has since moved to the West End – sorely disappointed us. Yes, it was visually spectacular: the life-size horse puppets, the recreation of war, the scene when a tank thunders on to the stage were imaginatively conceived and stunningly produced. But what about the story to the benefit of which this spectacle was created: it was a simple, predictable children’s tale about the enduring love between a boy and his horse that survives the miseries of the First World War. It neither presented any new ideas about the human-animal equation nor about the war.

I would understand if the audience were mainly children. But the average age in the packed, admiring theatre last night was between 40 and 60. The play has been a huge commercial success and even enticed the Queen – well-known for her love for horses – into dropping by. It is set to hit the New York Broadway later during the year, and it is rumoured that Steven Spielberg has bought its film rights.

In a way, War Horse reminded me of Avatar, where the story played second fiddle to the visual experience, but no one minded. As we watched Avatar, I could practically predict each scene before it happened. Is that ok? Does focussing their time, energy and money into producing a cutting edge visual experience absolve the makers from giving us a complex, multidimensional storyline?

If yes, then I have been needlessly lambasting Bollywood for all these years. Bollywood films too create an extravaganza of songs, dances and drama for the benefit of binary, moralistic tales. I put down their success to us Indians not being particularly demanding viewers.

But apparently, that is what works commercially world over. Just the tableau in the West is more sophisticated.

Hidden among the rave reviews of the play is a piece by Michael Billington of the Guardian, which asks the same question as I do.


Girish Shahane said...

Very interesting point. But I'm not sure I accept your equation of "cutting edge visual experience" with "extravaganza of songs, dances and drama".
Certainly, after seeing Up In the Air, I felt I'd much rather have Avatar get the best picture Oscar than the George Clooney starrer: Avatar at least extends the vocabulary of cinema in a clear new direction, something very few films achieve. Up In the Air is a perfectly ordinary film that's caught the mood of the moment because unemployment is so high in the US.

globalbabble said...

You thought Avatar should get the Oscar because you haven't seen The Hurt Locker. I don't know enough about cinema, but I know it was a remarkably unusual film. It was different type of story telling - so incredibly focussed and tightly packed. A complete opposite of the grand tales and meta narratives that have become so popular these days.

Well, the thing is that with bollywood (in their own third rate way) think that if the visuals are good enough (the song,dances, the foreign locales and sets) it is enough to rough shod the story.

Girish Shahane said...

No no, I don't think Avatar should get the Oscar, just that I'd rather have Avatar get it than Up In the Air

globalbabble said...

I haven't seen Up In The Air but read your review of it. I guess it is slim pickings this year for Oscars.

Jana said...

Anuvab just wanted me to tell you that the only thing that got him through War Horse was imagining the steak he was going to order for dinner.

chetna said...

Tell Anuvabh, I can totally understand. We didn't even have a steak to look to forward to...