Performed by Shared Experience.
Adapted by Helen Edmondson.
Directed by Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale.
Seven hours is a long time to sit in the theatre, albeit with a supper-hour in the middle, but the numbness in my nether regions was forgotten as Shared Experience took the audience on a superlative journey through peace, war, doubtful peace, more war, tentative peace, devastating war and finally some possible redemption. The fact that this production was fantastic is not to say that the experience was not gruelling. The first part of the play ended with Barnaby Kay’s nihilistic Pierre Bezuhov intoning “Death. And. Nothingness”, with all the finality and hopelessness of a funeral knell. Charming.
Time for a restorative sandwich to revive the flagging spirits and stave off impending depression. It would be an unwise move, at least financially speaking, to drive an entire audience to suicidal despair in the first half, but there were so many stunningly beautiful and resonant moments (as well a cliff-hanger ending) that there was no doubt that people were going to come back for more.
The tawdry, tired gold of the set was evocative of an age gone by and of ruined splendour, an important theme of the play. The Russian aristocracy running through the blazing streets of Moscow to escape Napoleon’s army squabble over what to sacrifice and what to save. The shimmering mirrors and gold – mostly life-size picture frames used to create everything from doors and windows to opera boxes – captured the casual decadence of the shallower characters, and gave the young, rebellious characters a physical representation of wealth to reject. The set was opulent enough to make the rich costumes and jewels seem fitting in the party scenes, but was also faded enough to perfectly capture the slightly run-down museum atmosphere of the opening scene.
Despite this visual decadence, the set and props were actually quite minimal while the costumes were gorgeously over the top. Cutlery featured heavily, often making the distinction between dancing and fighting unclear – a clever way of illustrating the vicious nature of much of the aristocracy’s repartee. The actual battlegrounds were created with flags, boxes, and lots of screaming and shouting, enhanced by frighteningly loud gunshots. The ensemble movement work in the battle scenes was spectacular, and the use of slow motion avoided bad-film territory and was shockingly moving. With a fairly small cast and such a long, intimate time on stage, watching the various bright young things we had seen dance, fall in love, sing, drink, boast and fight topple to the ground in agonizing slow motion to twitch and lie still was excellently done – tragic without over-egging the pudding-of-death.
The cast were unanimously good, particularly those who had the difficult task of charting the younger generation’s journey from pampered innocence to bitter experience. Playing a child is always difficult, but Louise Ford’s Natasha grew on stage from a romantically deluded, spoiled teenager into a calm, sad woman, via a hysterical failed elopement and a love-affaire tragically cut short by the war. The spectre of war touches all of the characters in the play – the clue is in the name! – and Helen Edmondson’s adaptation does not pull any punches when dealing with death and destruction. Homes, families, lives and loves are shattered by war, and Meckler and Teale’s direction excellently counterpoints the young mens’ intense desire to fight for their country with their female relatives’ fear and grief. Particularly of note was Marion Bailey as Countess Rostova, almost physically destroyed with fear for her oldest son and later grief for her younger. Her husband, Geoffrey Beevers’ brilliantly affable Count Rostov, was often the comic relief within the Rostov family’s many trials and tribulations, but his devotion to his family and deep love for his wife and children kept him from becoming a figure of fun. The other patriarch in the play, Prince Balkonsky, played by the excellent Jeffery Kissoon, is a different matter. Frail, feisty and domineering, he bullies and blusters his way through the play, never failing to be compelling, and, at his demise, heart-rending. He had a good limp, too.
His long-suffering daughter, Princess Maria (Kate Wimpenny) channels her suffering into her religion, and her frail hope of one day escaping the tyranny of the father she desperately loves and finding love for herself is delicately and sensitively portrayed. Her wayward brother, Prince Andrei (David Sturzaker), was quite taciturn, meaning that Sturzaker’s eyebrows did a lot of the acting – but never have eyebrows been more eloquent.
The old show-biz adage of ‘always leave them wanting more’ will generally not apply to 7-hour shows, but with a constant energy and a plot that rolled on like a fatal boulder down a hill, Shared Experience’s War and Peace did. Not that I left unsatisfied, but I could have watched more – although I think a cushion would have been necessary! After being put through the emotional wringer for so long, this reviewer was so involved in the emotional lives of these people that the thought of them suffering any more was almost unbearable, and the ambiguity of the ending was therefore slightly frustrating. However, one cannot argue with Tolstoy – and this production of his great work was truly Epic.