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A CurtainUp London London Review
War and Peace

Pure and complete sorrow is as impossible as pure and complete joy—Tolstoy in War and Peace
War and Peace
Battle scene from War and Peace
(Photo: Robert Day)
No less than twelve years ago, Shared Experience's War and Peace wowed audiences at the National Theatre with its dramatic take on the Russian epic novel. Now revived and extended from three hours to six and split into two parts, Helen Edmundson's adaptation offers the same blend of broad historical scope and personal depth with a more mature and sophisticated production.

As you would expect from Shared Experience, the saga is portrayed not by a static narrator but by the more intangible tools of strong characterisation, impressionistic direction and electrifying original movement. Set in a space surrounded with burnished mirrors and large incomplete gilt frames, the opening sequence portrays a Russian stately home now converted into a modern day museum, explored by a tourist visitor and minded by a knitting attendant. As they discuss the history represented by the portraits on the wall, the nineteenth century cast creep onstage like a ghostly infiltration from the past. The modern ceiling lights of the museum fly upwards and the audience are transported back to the 1800s.

The beguiling promise of this dreamlike beginning is certainly not disappointed and throughout there are interesting motifs, evocative sequences and gestures redolent of meaning. For example, whenever Natasha's (Louise Ford) girlish ego is flattered, this is expressed by operatic, self-proclamatory singing. When the alluring, perfidious Anatole Kuragin (Hywel Morgan) tries to seduce her at the opera house, the couple become the opera and the misconceived romance is played out with all the high drama which Natasha must be feeling. Another recurring motif is the presence of forks and long white handkerchiefs, pointing to the twin core concepts of war and peace. However, the polarities are destabilised and intermingled, so in a ballroom, the dancers charge at each other with uplifted forks and during the Battle of Borodino, the soldiers fling their handkerchiefs as if weapons. This symbolism isn't simply for aesthetic effect as we see the war-peace boundaries obfuscated: characters enjoy the clarity of war and wrestle with the lack of tranquillity in peace.

In comparison with earlier Shared Experience productions, the physicality in War and Peace is more restrained and strictly relevant, and thus all the more effective. Instead, there is a strong focus on the characters and their inner journeys. The excellent cast manage to portray a vivid sense of emotional coherence, in spite of the changes and progressions which the characters undergo. Barnaby Kay is very sympathetic as the lovable, impressionable Pierre, hapless at times but well-meaning and idealistic. Louise Ford's Natasha has the purity and energy of Tolstoy's original and her growth into self-realisation and maturity is skilfully navigated. Katie Wimpenny is the pious and humble Maria, whose romantic yearnings are exposed by a blindfolded man dancing around her as she prays. David Sturzaker is a stern yet true Prince Andrei, Geoffrey Beevers evinces sheer geniality as Count Rostov and Jeffrey Kissoon is the irascible Prince Bolkonsky.

In addition to this rich character portrayal, Shared Experience bravely tackle the philosophical life struggles in the novel, translated to the stage via dialogue. Therefore, Pierre often converses with an imaginary Napoleon (Richard Attlee), as well as the peasant Platon Karataev (Des McAleer). In this way, the audience see his inner conflict: the quasi-hubristic attempt to control life versus an acceptance of fate and resignation to the unavoidable suffering it brings. The hint in the novel's epilogue that Pierre will be involved in the failed 1825 Decembrist revolt is elicited to more prominence in this production, so we feel that Pierre's idealism is not entirely surrendered to contented pragmatism.

This mesmeric production simply oozes humanity as the characters engagingly contend with striving, delusion, idealism and disillusion. Tolstoy is one of those rare writers who evince an absolute love for the characters he created and this is aptly translated to the stage. It could, in fact, be a blueprint for adapting complex novels onstage with its clear allegiance to the text and its beguiling, innovative direction.

Based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Adapted by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale

With: Richard Attlee, Marion Bailey, Geoffrey Beevers, Louise Ford, Theo Herdman, Barnaby Kay, Jeffery Kissoon, Des McAleer, Hywel Morgan, Sophie Roberts, Vinette Robinson, David Sturzaker, Simon Thorp, Katie Wimpenny, Jonathan Woolf
Set Design: Angela Simpson
Costume Design: Yvonne Milnes
Lighting: Chris Davey
Music and Sound: Peter Salem
Movement Director: Liz Ranken
Part One running time: 3 hours with one interval
Part Two running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 11th May 2008
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 14th April 2008 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London, NW3 3EU (Tube: Swiss Cottage)

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