Theater has always been a huge part of my life, so it’s no surprise that I was determined to see as many shows as I could while in London. In a place like Athens, it is not often I get to treat myself to a night out watching a live performance, but in London’s West End, there are playhouses on practically every block. Needless to say, I was in heaven. In my short time there, I had the opportunity to see Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon, and War Horse. All three of them were incredible performances that took my breath away (and caused me to shed a tear or two… maybe). It was War Horse, however, that stood apart from the rest and really got me thinking about how theater in the London differs from theater in the United States.
For those who don’t know, War Horse is a play that depicts the powerful bond between a young man and a horse as they relentlessly try to find each other after being separated at the start of World War I. It is an incredibly emotional play that incorporates some of the most innovative props I have ever seen. It was the use of different languages that I found most fascinating, though. There were entire scenes spoken in German or French—and no, there weren’t subtitles to help those of us who did not understand a word of those languages.
This might not seem like a big deal, but when the rest of the audience is laughing at a joke that goes right over your head, you start to feel a bit uncomfortable. This got me thinking about how diverse and cultured London truly is. There are people from all over the world, and almost everyone speaks more than one language. I don’t think this rings true in America; we all speak English and that’s about it. Sure, we might know a bit of Spanish or French from the couple years we took in high school or college, but few of us are fluent enough to keep up in a fast-paced conversation.
After the show, I started wondering how this heavy use of foreign language would fare in America and felt that general audiences probably would not be so fond of it. While it might be beautiful from a playwright’s perspective, I have a feeling that the rest of an American audience would feel the same way that my fellow classmates and I felt: lost and wishing we paid more attention in French class. In London, the playwright might be able to get away with this, but it would definitely have to be adapted for an American audience.
Not understanding certain parts of War Horse did nothing to lower my pure enjoyment of the show, however. I honestly doubt anything could; it was amazing and overwhelming in the best possible way. The theater nerd inside of me was having a blast. It is now on my to-do list to see an American production of War Horse to make comparisons and see how they handle the issue of using foreign languages—if they even changed anything at all. It is ultimately an artistic choice that lends to the authenticity of play’s reality.
Overall, War Horse is a breath-taking production that will have you craving more. Just reliving it in my mind right now is giving me chills. The same can be said for Phantom of the Opera and Book of Mormon. The atmosphere might be slightly different in London’s theater world, but it is still the same at its heart. I can honestly say that these shows were highlights of my trip and only reinforced my absolute love of the theater. I just can’t get enough of it.
Breck Willis is a senior communication studies major who recently participated in the “Exploring Art in London” program over winter break.