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War and Peace

Adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Tolstoy
Shared Experience, Nottingham Playhouse and Hampstead Theatre co-production
Nottingham Playhouse
(2008)

When Helen Edmundson and Shared Experience first collaborated on War & Peace in 1996, putting on Tolstoy's behemoth in the National Theatre, they had the distinct feeling that they weren't really doing justice to the masterpiece which took five years to write. They believed they needed a good five hours, rather than the three they were allotted, to explore fully the breadth and depth of Tolstoy's weighty tome.

Now the same team have got together again to create a six-hour (with intervals), two-part examination of the life and soul of the Russian nation and its people.

It's a massive undertaking which many companies wouldn't even contemplate, let alone stage. Yet Shared Experience have the vision, creative ability and nous not just to tackle this epic but to make a spectacular success of it.

The company and Nottingham Playhouse worked together four years ago on A Passage To India. Now they've entered a new partnership with a third co-producer, Hampstead Theatre, on War & Peace which is touring to eight theatres and has a month's run at the north London venue.

The latest interpretation of War & Peace is in two complementary parts which can be seen on successive evenings or in one exhausting but satisfying day-long session.

Having seen the first part, I could hardly wait to see the second because the ending left you on tenterhooks. The second had more pace on the evening I saw yet I couldn't imagine watching it on its own without part one which introduced the characters and outlined the initial stages of the profound development they would make.

Throughout both parts there's the sure directorial touch of Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale who brought the shorter War & Peace to the stage. They know intimately the scope of Edmundson's adaptation as well as the company's capabilities, so it shouldn't be too surprising that the production is such a vibrant success.

Fifteen actors play no fewer than 72 roles between them in War & Peace which dissects the impact of the Napoleonic wars on the Russian nation over a period of fifteen years. Doubling and trebling up is done so expertly that there's little problem differentiating between characters.

It's slightly unfair to single anyone out for praise as all the actors cope admirably with the scale and complexity of this production which needs greater stamina and endurance than a marathon runner.

However, Barnaby Kay is matchless as Pierre Bezuhov, measuring to perfection the character's gradual metamorphosis from a follower of Napoleon into a philanthropist who recognises the sheer futility of war. And Richard Attlee is fascinating to watch as Bonaparte, the man whose aim is to create a single European state. Attlee gives brief glimpses of the megalomaniacal side of the emperor who on more than one occasion raised an army to march on Russia.

Shared Experience are renowned for their innovative approach and distinctive style which shine throughout this production, thanks in no small way to Angela Simpson's design.

A piano and a white sheet both have multiple uses while large picture frames turn into doorways, windows and even opera boxes. And the second half opens with a hunting expedition with several of the actors on all fours expertly portraying hounds.

I've never read Tolstoy's novel, so I can't pass comment on how close Edmundson's adaptation is to the original. I would have liked more to have been made of the battles which had such a devastating effect on the Russian nation yet seemed to be over fairly quickly.

But this is a towering production from start to finish, a real experience that needs to be shared by as many people as possible.

"War & Peace" tours to Liverpool Playhouse, Darlington Civic Centre, Bath Theatre Royal, Warwick Arts Centre Coventry, Oxford Playhouse, Truro Hall for Cornwall, Hampstead Theatre and Cheltenham Everyman until May 18th

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Hampstead Theatre

Reviewer: Steve Orme