War and Peace

Helen Edmundson, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Shared Experience
Hampstead Theatre
(2008)

Let's face it. War and Peace is one of the best-known and least read novels in the literary canon. Its tremendous length, over 1400 pages in the Penguin Classics edition, can be forbidding and therefore many people will welcome a stage version that condenses the story but catches much of the atmosphere.

Even so, Helen Edmundson's new adaptation still takes seven hours from start to finish, including a 70 minute dinner break. However, thanks to the fluidity of the production, jointly directed by Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale, there are few dull moments in a highly enjoyable (afternoon and) evening.

Shared Experience first produced War and Peace at the National Theatre twelve years ago but have considerably extended the adaptation for this new co-production with the Nottingham Playhouse. In doing so, they are able to develop the story and characters fully, which must have been their goal.

They also challenge a dedicated ensemble of actors, all of whom get time in the limelight, sometimes more than once as several play multiple roles. The clarity of the vision is remarkable, in that rarely is there any doubt as to who characters are and how they relate, despite the large list of dramatis personae.

The stage is set up by designer Angela Simpson with tarnished mirrors to represent the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, great golden picture frames taking on symbolic significance throughout and helping to concentrate attention at key moments.

The epic sweep of the novel conveys so much about Russian life, primarily amongst the well-to-do, in the period from just before the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 to its successor in 1812 at Borodino and the ensuing occupation of Moscow by Napoleon's French army.

The focus throughout is on two families and a rather eccentric loner. Even in the happy times, Prince Bolkonski, wittily played as a strict Dickensian eccentric patriarch by Jeffery Kissoon, and his children Andrei and Maria hardly enjoy life. David Sturzaker plays the cheerless son, good as an army officer but a terrible husband, while Katie Wimpenny is an unhappy, ugly duckling spinster yearning for love that her possessive father will not permit.

Ostensibly led by the rather whimsical but caring parents it is Rostovs who bring joy to the early scenes, led by teenaged beauty Natasha, outstandingly portrayed by Louise Ford who also has a beautiful singing voice. She and her brothers are lucky enough to have not only wealth but warmth in their home. It seems that the only cloud on the horizon is a war with the French that will take away Natasha's brother Nikolai (Jonathan Woolf) to the army.

Flitting between these two groups is the hapless intellectual misfit Pierre Bezuhov, played by Barnaby Kay. His journey is the most fascinating of all. Eschewing the army he marries society beauty Helene Kuragin, knowing even as he falls into her arms for the first time that this is a mistake. He lives to regret it as she repeatedly makes him a cuckolded laughing stock, eventually driving the bespectacled civilian to a duel that he surprisingly wins against an arrogant army officer.

By the end though, after dabbling with madness, he comes out on top, happily married and with a great post-war future. The same cannot be said for many others that we see during this long play. His great friend Andrei briefly finds happiness after coming back from the dead at Austerlitz but his nature does not allow this to endure.

As is inevitable, when 50,000 men can die on a battlefield in a single day and many illnesses were fatal to the general populace, there is much mourning in War and Peace.

Even so, at the end of the marathon we are left with hope for the future, which indeed would have been justified for these people and their like for the best part of a century until the Revolution took away their princely titles and wealth forever.

Shared Experience have long been specialists in adapting big novels and do themselves great justice on this occasion. The casting is excellent, the fast tempo absolutely necessary and there are some gorgeous set pieces, never more than the scene in which Moscow goes up in flames, beautifully reflected again and again in the set's manifold mirrors.

Do not be daunted by the length of this production. It feels nothing like as long as other much shorter and less worthy plays.

If you have read War and Peace, then this touring adaptation will undoubtedly bring back many happy memories. If you have never read it, this is a unique opportunity to get an impression of its breadth and scope, not to mention impressing friends with your knowledge. Indeed, this play is so good, that it might even persuade some visitors to embark on those 1400 plus pages and that is high praise.

At Hampstead until 11th May, then at Cheltenham Everyman

Steve Orme reviewed this production at Nottingham Playhouse

Reviewer: Philip Fisher