Outside Shanghyai Culture Square.
Outside Shanghai Culture Square.

I thought Joey and I were finished. Almost three years had passed without a word. Oh, sure, I had mementos – his movie on a homemade DVD; the National Theatre’s 50th-anniversary special, two hours preserved on my DVR in case I ever need to see the transformation scene, which can’t take more than two minutes. But except for the memories, that was all.

Then, in late August, while waiting in the lobby of the Foreign Experts Residence, I picked up an issue of China Daily, well over a month old. And there he was, in the lead feature on the Life pages announcing news I never saw coming: Joey was in China.

What are the chances of that paper’s being on top of the pile in that lobby on that particular day? Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, he walked into mine.

War Horse, the Tony Award-winning play adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s young-adult novel about a boy and his horse cruelly separated by World War I, was coming to Beijing, and from there traveling to Shanghai and Guangzhou. Joey, a life-size horse puppet, is the star. In 2011 I was so entranced by the Broadway production that within the week I had signed on as a substitute usher at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where I worked much of show’s two-year run. After it closed, I saw the NT Live broadcast of the original London production — not just to see Joey again, but also to hear the French and German characters in the second act speaking those languages, in contrast with the all-English New York production. Now I’d have the chance to hear the whole play in Chinese.

Joey doesn’t arrive in Guangzhou until March, by which time I will be long gone, though his portrait already graces the box office lobby of the Opera House. I didn’t make it to Beijing, but by Christmastime the show would be in Shanghai. Shanghai is the New York of China, and though I’d still be missing the best party of the year on Christmas Eve, seeing a Broadway show would feel a little like being home. So, like young Albert, who runs away from the farm in Devon on Christmas Day to look for Joey on the battlefields of France, I set off for Shanghai.

In the weeks before, I could feel him drawing closer. In the exam on the United Kingdom in my English-Speaking Cultures course, one student surprised me by answering a bonus question – “Who is your favorite figure in British culture, and why?” – by choosing Morpurgo, though for a different book. And I had bought my ticket online through an agency whose e-mail address is, aptly, ponypiao, and whose office turned out to be right behind my hotel. When I went to pick up the ticket, I expected to hear the usual: “But . . . this play is in Chinese.” Who in the audience would understand it better than I? For once, no one asked.

The venue was Shanghai Culture Square, which since the 1920s has been a racetrack, a casino, a political re-education center, a temporary stock exchange and a flower market. In 2011, the year I met Joey, it reopened as a glass-walled performing arts center with an oval flying saucer of as roof and a 2,000-seat Broadway-style house – twice the size of the Beaumont – underground. (The balcony is at street level, much like the Stephen Sondheim Theater on 43rd Street.) Broadway-style entertainment is a booming business in China these days, though the house for War Horse was only about 500 on Christmas night — early curtain, 7:15, and no, I didn’t ask if the ushers were being paid holiday premium.

The theater has a slightly curved proscenium stage, less rounded than the Beaumont’s. The stage floor replicated the design with a circle (but no turntable; it’s a touring show) with extensions to the wings. Here the show does not use the aisles, robbing it of some drama, not to mention the puppeteers’ break outside the door.

Seeing War Horse in Chinese was a little like visiting an alternative universe, and sitting in the 10th row orchestra dead center instead of a little round jump seat or outside in the smoke rings was the least of it. Press reports had suggested there would be revisions for the Chinese production – changing the setting to the Rape of Nanking, perhaps? – but no, it was still World War I in Europe, with Chinese characters replacing “Devon” and dates in the strip of cloud/sketchbook hanging over the stage. Joey was still Joey, not Zhou Wei, and Albert was still Albert, though his name came out sounding more like Al-Bairt. I heard Chinese R’s in Rose and the translated lyrics to “Rolling,” with which I sang along sotto voce. (Why not? Everyone around me was talking, and texting, and waving lighted phones in my face.)

I caught the occasional word – dui (yes) and the ubiquitous mei you (literally “have not,” meaning “I don’t have it/any” or “there isn’t any”). But, much as when I saw Hamlet in Prague and recognized all the major speeches but one, I would have known these lines anywhere. As the play progressed, they jumped out at me in between thoughts and memories.

“30 guineas! The pair of youse should be locked up!”

“Well, I didn’t do it!”

Ted Narracott receives entrance applause (mild, like all applause here), so he must be somebody, but there was no playbill in any language. The training of young Joey resonated with me in ways it didn’t when I was living with a serene 15-year-old cat rather than the skittish 2-year-old I’ve domesticated since. The transformation scene seemed odd: instead of a foal galloping offstage to be replaced by a stallion, adult Joey appears to be giving birth to his younger self upstage center. Oddest of all was hearing the Germans speak Chinese.

“You sold him? You sold Joey to the Army? Joey’s MY horse!”

The scene in which Joey meets Topthorn for the first time has the same choreography as the New York production, but not its clean precision. I have my doubts that it’s rehearsed before every show, as I watched hundreds of times while stuffing Playbills. Even so, I was reminded of the puppeteers’ skill in movements large (horses rearing) and small (the flicking of one ear.)

“On and on about your bleedin’ horse. Your cousin Billy could be dead. Half the men in the village could be dead.” But this Rose is sweet, without the forceful practicality Alyssa Bresnahan brought to the role of Albert’s mother.

Captain Stewart’s death scene played the same, though I missed the turntable. But the first-act curtain, “jump the wire”? No barbed wire! Some did appear in the second act, when Joey becomes trapped in it. But the British and German soldiers who find common cause in rescuing him untangled it much too quickly, spending more time on the coin toss to see which side would win this spoil of war.

As always, the arrival of the red-caped nurse in the second-last scene signaled that it was almost time to go home. After so many performances, I could relax, knowing Joey would not be shot. “It’s ’is ’orse! It’s ‘is effin’ ‘orse!” sounds very different in Chinese.

And then the ending:

“Ted?”

“What is it?”

“It’s a man. And a horse.”

At the Beaumont, I would listen each night from the space between the house doors and the curtains, wondering which inflection Bresnhan would give the play’s last line: “It can’t BE!” or “It CAN’T be!”? I missed hearing the Chinese Rose as the final chorus of “Only Remembered” swelled behind her, but there was no missing the message. Once again Albert had gone to war a boy and come home a man, and once again both he and Joey had been mended.

Joey (right) and Topthorn take their bows.
Joey (right) and Topthorn take their bows.

Curtain calls followed exactly the same sequence as in New York, right down to that silly goose. Topthorn’s puppeteers took their bow, then Joey’s, before running offstage to pick up their puppets so the stars of the show could salute each other and the barely responsive audience. The cast’s upstage arc looked ragged, as if in need of a captain. But as the house lights came up, there was an unexpected second finale, presumably from the London recording: “Only Remembered,” played in English. This time I sang along in full voice.

Merry Christmas, Joey. Good seeing you again.

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