Touring; seen at Nottingham Playhouse
Opened 7 February, 2008

When the Shared Experience company first tackled Tolstoy’s classic doorstop of a novel in 1996, logistics constrained them to making a single play of some four hours including intervals. Given this second chance, they have created a diptych that lasts not quite six hours all in, or a little over seven if you see both parts on the same day as I did in Nottingham at the beginning of its tour. It is just about possible to watch the first part without the second, but not vice versa; Helen Edmundson eschews the device of including a brief recap sequence that TV drama has taught us to think of as a “Previously…”. There is no pretence that these are two autonomous pieces.
Theatre works of such length develop a pace of their own. Even when undertaking such compression as this (the novel runs to 1400 pages in the current Penguin edition), there is less sense of dramatic urgency; inevitably, Edmundson to some extent lets the succession of events “breathe” rather than marshalling them towards a narrative or thematic end. Our journey with the various individuals and families through Russia’s Napoleonic wars, as they negotiate their divers paths between free will and fatalism, feels like a saga rather than a drama, right up to the final minutes which follow Tolstoy’s own pattern by moving beyond the obvious “curtain” point of resolution and hinting far ahead. However, some quirks of pacing may have been due less to the nature of the adaptation than to the fact that the performance I saw was the first time Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale’s cast of 15 had run through both parts on the same day.
Even though War And Peace, the definitive Russian work of art, is not as inherent to our own cultural fabric, it can be hard to avoid echoes from elsewhere. When the idealistic Pierre fought his duel with Dolohov, once or twice during the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, and especially in the scene in which the innocent Natasha is seduced by Anatole Kuragin at the opera, I found myself irresistibly recalling corresponding scenes in Woody Allen’s Tolstoy-cum-Bergman parody Love And Death. (Pierre’s habit of talking to an imaginary Napoleon, too, echoes Allen with Bogart in Play It Again, Sam.) This mental wandering may also, I think, be due to over-familiarity with the Shared Experience aesthetic. The company are purveyors of excellence in novel adaptations, but their approach – a blend of textual attention and ensemble performance that periodically takes flight beyond naturalism – no longer sets them apart from a number of other companies; nor, so much, does it set one of their productions apart from another.
Angela Simpson’s set of regressing marble arches and empty gilt picture frames takes its cue from a modern-day prologue in which a visitor to the Hermitage in St Petersburg discusses the portraits with a gallery attendant (Des McAleer, who weaves through the rest of the play as a succession of servants, peasants and sometimes simply an unexplained witness to events). The visuals are atmospheric, but include odd moments such as when dancers at a society ball morph in and out of battling armies, all the while brandishing dining cutlery. Barnaby Kay shows assiduous stamina as Pierre, but the character’s lack of charisma is a dramatic drawback; Louise Ford, less than a year out of RADA, meets the challenge of Natasha gaining years and bitter experience; agreeable character turns are provided by the chirping Geoffrey Beevers and the rumbling Jeffery Kissoon. There is no pretence that the adaptation is an adequate substitute for the novel; but nor, this time, does the company succeed in imbuing it with a sufficient theatrical identity of its own.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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