War and Peace
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2008
Another triumph for Shared Experience, this two-part nearly-six-hour adaptation by Helen Edmundson is filled with theatrical invention, empathetic performances and moments of both high drama and low comedy that together make it more engrossing and faster moving than many a stodgy shorter play.
Shared Experience is the touring company that specialises in adaptations of seemingly unstageable literary works, with the ensemble playing, inventive incorporation of music and movement, and frequently inspired direction of Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale bringing the page to the stage.
A three-hour version of Tolstoy's War and Peace first played in 1996, with this extended text developed this year at the Nottingham Playhouse.
Let's admit from the start that six hours of the world's most unread literary classic will not be to all tastes. But anyone open to the excitement of real theatrical imagination in the service of a great text will want to see this.
And they will discover that, far from being a dreary good-for-you slog, the two evenings (or, better, matinee and evening) will immerse them in a world so richly textured that the time may seem to go by too quickly.
To grossly oversimplify, Tolstoy's novel follows the adventures of two Russian noblemen during the Napoleonic Wars.
Intellectual, truth- and faith-seeking, frequently a bit foolish, Pierre finds himself following the philosophy or religion-of-the-month, be it Bonaparte idolatry, hedonism, Freemasonry or Christian humility.
Meanwhile his friend Andrei develops from glory-seeking soldier to lover to battle-scarred nihilist on his way toward his own peace and wisdom.
The large cast of characters (played here, through extensive doubling and tripling, by 15 actors) extends to the two men's families and particularly the young Natasha, whose life and family will become entwined with both heroes.
Adapter and directors take us through this sprawling literary landscape with remarkable efficiency and clarity, and one of the production's quieter but no less remarkable accomplishments is that, no matter how many subplots we move through, we always know where we are in the story and who we are looking at.
The overall style is cinematic, with islands of lighting and actors who enter to begin new scenes the very second another has ended, keeping the action continuous and even overlapping, as when the end of Pierre's disastrous marriage is cross-cut with the meeting of Andrei and Natasha.
On an almost bare stage, Angela Simpson's design makes inventive and evocative use of a few chairs, a piano and especially some empty picture frames, which engage our imaginations to become mirrors, windows, doors, even theatre boxes as needed.
Adapter Edmundson's one major addition is to bring Napoleon onstage, not just as a real character in the battle scenes, but as a projection of Pierre's thoughts, an ironic conscience that repeatedly challenges Pierre to examine and justify his thinking and behaviour (and, not incidentally, allows Edmundson to turn the novel's internal monologues into theatrical dialogue).
The production is full of theatrically exciting moments, ranging from the elaborate balls and soirees of imperial Russian society through evocatively choreographed battle sequences and a seduction scene played as grand opera, to more quiet moments, as when the pre-battle prayers of the soldiers are juxtaposed to Andrei's darkest despair and the more domestic thoughts of those back home.
Barnaby Kay keeps Pierre sympathetic by making his sincere search for a moral life ring true even when the man is being most foolish or bumbling.
David Sturzaker takes Andrei and us on the painful journey from heights to depths and than back to a peaceful and contented middle.
Louise Ford always lets us see that Natasha is not just a pretty face, but a girl growing into a woman in the most painful ways.
Geoffrey Beevers and Jeffery Kissoon steal their scenes as two comically out-of-their-depth fathers, while Des McAleer anchors the play in a string of secondary roles culminating in the prison philosopher Karataev.
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Review of War And Peace - Shared Experience at Hampstead Theatre 2008