Nancy Meckler & Polly Teale
Some 12 years ago, Shared Experience originated their production of War and Peace in conjunction with the National Theatre, and theyve now revived it in an expanded version under the same directors, Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale.
One of the major difficulties of adapting novels for the stage is avoiding narration, a convention which is cumbersome and inherently undramatic. Even David Edgar in his masterly adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby succumbed to what can frankly be a bit of a cop-out. Capturing the scope and temporal spread of a novel as vast as War and Peace, is particularly tricky. Erwin Piscator dramatised the book in 1955 relying heavily upon a designated narrator but this was an acceptable technique within the conventions of Epic Theatre that he and Brecht pioneered.
Its to Helen Edmundsons credit that she portrays the thrust of Tolstoys mighty epic without resorting to spoken narration at all. Her script, and Meckler and Teales realisation of it, flows efficiently through the major episodes of the novel with some striking points of theatrical boldness.
Some of these work while others misfire. Dolohovs balancing act on a window frame drinking a bottle of rum is effectively pulled off, while a mimed meal at Prince Bolkonskys looks daft. Another inappropriate use of knives and forks is exceedingly odd during the later ballroom scene, where its not clear what the stylisation is supposed to represent. There are tiny gems of exactitude such as Marias sudden turning into her father, a telling moment, but also huge lumps of misjudgement like the faux-opera that accompanies Kuragins seduction of Natasha. Bad singing apart, its horribly cheesy.
War and Peace is not about spectacle but you certainly notice its absence. Of course one has to acknowledge the limitations of staging a work of this nature but the Battle of Borodino, it goes without saying immensely challenging to stage, doesnt convince when it consists of little more than a bunch of girls waving hankies. Sometimes more is more. The earlier Battle of Austerlitz, focusing on the more intimate fate of Prince Andrei, comes off better.
A story that one becomes totally immersed in when reading is strangely charmless in this adaptation. It never manages to give more than an illustration of Tolstoys novel and the characterisations remain at the level of thumbnails. As if over-compensating for the literary origins of the work, the acting is uniformly externalised and to a degree that makes it impossible to care for anyone. This is a serious flaw, less so with the myriad of minor characters who pop up with the proverbial change of hats, but majorly when it comes to the main trio of Prince Andrei, Pierre and Natasha.
There is dramatic breadth but little depth. A series of empty frames, dragged around the stage to resemble this threshold or that, presents an image that sums up the production.
The play is presented over two evenings or, for those who want the continuation, on the same day a number of times during the run. Anyone taking on the six hours in one stint should be warned that this is harder work than the much greater length of the Shakespeare history trilogies currently being presented at the Roundhouse down the road. 12 hours of Henry VI flies by, leaving War and Peace waddling half the distance.