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.