Review: War Horse (Mirvish)

War Horse is a visual feast and is on stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto

I was blown away by beauty of the staging and effects while watching War Horse at Mirvish’s Princess of Wales Theatre.

When it comes to visual elements and design, this is one of the most spectacular shows I’ve seen. My show partner for the piece, Mooney on Theatre’s Managing Editor Wayne Leung, remarked that “Since they weren’t going for a hyper-realistic effect it opened them up to the exploration of amazing stagecraft.” I totally agree.

War Horse is stagecraft at its best, it uses all the elements as beautifully as I can imagine them being used. By now you have no doubt heard about the puppets in the show. You may have even seen the amazing 20 minute TED Talk delivered by the creators of the puppets, Handspring Puppet Company.

Those puppets, especially the horses, are as amazing as everyone says. The horses, despite being made of bamboo and some kind of mesh, which at first glance looking nothing like a ‘real’ horse, are completely alive. They are so full of life that it is impossible not to fall in love with them.

But the animal puppets are not the only piece of stunning stagecraft. They’re just the piece we have heard the most about. There’s also the backdrop of a torn piece of paper, where projections essentially become the set, interacting with three dimensional set pieces on the stage to complete a picture.  Sticks become fences, lights become artillery fire and live music becomes punctuation.

The whole production really is a sight to behold. The horses come so alive that it doesn’t matter that you can see all three puppeteers, they become irrelevant (even though, in reality, they’re the ones doing all the work), that’s how they become invisible. The horses are characters, beings, the mechanics cease to matter.

By the way, in case you’re wondering who the amazing folks working the two main horses are, they’re Brendan J. Rowland, Adam Cunningham, Sean C. Robertson, Brad Cook, Bryan Hindle, and Caden Douglas.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I do remember watching the play and thinking “I would really not be interested in seeing this as a movie.” It’s because it wasn’t the story that engaged me, it was the production that engaged me. It was all about the stagecraft, about the fact that a collection of bamboo and fabric, when combined with three unbelievably skilled and talented people, came completely alive.

Wayne, who has seen the movie, confirmed that train of thought for me: “It’s a consummate work of theatre. The piece works so much better on stage than it did on film.” The message I’d take from this is, if you’ve seen the movie and you weren’t excited by it, don’t let that deter you from the stage version. It’s a whole different, far better, beast.

So, all this talk of what the play looked like, and not a word on what it was about. There’s a reason for that. The story itself didn’t excite me much. Don’t get me wrong, I was touched, I cried, and I’m sure I’d have cried if I’d read the book or seen the movie. But it didn’t enlighten, challenge, or even particularly entertain me. I heard it described as schmaltzy, and that seems pretty accurate. It’s very sentimental, something I would have adored as a kid but doesn’t do much for me these days.

For me, the story seemed like an excellent vehicle for all that beautiful work on stage, and ultimately that’s all I needed it to be.

I really recommend you treat yourself to this one.


– War Horse is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West)
– Show times are Tuesday to Saturday 7:30pm, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 1:30pm
– Ticket prices range from $35 to $175
– Tickets are available online or by calling TicketKing at 416.872.1212 or toll-free at 1.800.461.3333


Photo of Alex Furber and Adam Cook by Brinkhoff / Mögenburg