Tolstoy's epic novel 'War and Peace' has been reduced to just a few hours on stage

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The Independent Culture

In January 2002 I made only one new year's resolution: that year I would read War and Peace. Granted, it was a resolution born of necessity: I was in the third year of my Russian degree, I was living in St Petersburg with time on my hands – and it was on the reading list. Weighing up my second-hand Penguin translation (my resolve didn't, alas, extend to reading it in the original), I realised that a methodical approach would be the only way to win the battle with 1,444 pages of very small print and so I set myself a deadline of five weeks – at the end of which my sister was coming to visit for the weekend – or around 40 pages a day.

Between language classes and work, I'd find a couple of hours to settle down in the – now, sadly, closed – reading rooms of the British Council on the Fontanka canal or in the dimly lit basement of The Idiot café, where a leisurely served four-course brunch allowed for ample reading time. There were dark days – when Tolstoy's interminable musings on the nature of free will very nearly drained me of the will to live – but I mostly looked forward to immersing myself in the smoky hysterics of the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, the stench and misery of the military hospitals, the snowy expanses of the steppes and – best of all – the glittering beau monde of St Petersburg and Moscow, peopled by the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs, dashing cads and devastating beauties, acerbic old dames and avaricious dukes.

As I closed the book, five weeks later, I was left with a sheaf of papers covered in the names of characters, a woolly critical judgement that the peace bits were much better than the war bits, and a sneaking suspicion that, while I'd never forget the exhilarating experience of reading War and Peace, I'd have forgotten the content by the time finals came round.

How I wish I'd known then about Shared Experience's version. A Letts Revise guide of a theatre production, it premiered in the National's smallest space, the Cottesloe, in 1996, paring down Tolstoy's tome to four and a half hours with a cast of 15 – including a fresh-faced Anne-Marie Duff as Natasha – playing 72 characters. Now, the company are reviving their production in a lengthened two-part version that can be watched on separate evenings or on special "marathon days".

"There is a feeling now, more so than when we first did it, of people being up for an event that demands that you commit to a whole evening," says Polly Teale, co-director. "There's an excitement about theatre that doesn't just fit into the box, whether it's done in unusual spaces, or over an unusual timespan,so you feel you're off on an epic journey."

The lengthy journey is made infinitely more pleasurable by Helen Edmundson's fluent adaptation, which reads like a "greatest hits" of Tolstoy's sprawling narrative – a description that may, admittedly, both repel and attract theatre-goers. Prokofiev went to his grave before he saw his opera – the fruit of 11 years of painstaking labour – staged, but Edmundson suffered no such angst. "We put it on a list of possible productions to suggest to the National. It was slightly flippant, really, but then that was the one Richard Eyre picked out. I thought, 'oh dear'," she recalls.

Having already adapted Anna Karenina and The Mill on the Floss for Shared Experience, as well as the sell-out Coram Boy for the National, she is used to parrying the horrified cries of literary traditionalists. "We're not trying to 'do the book'. We're taking its essence and making it into two great evenings in the theatre. It's not a homage to War and Peace – it's War and Peace: The Play."

That said, Edmundson had always conceived her version as a two-parter. With hindsight, she and co-directors Teale and Nancy Meckler concede that their original romp was, perhaps, abridged too far. "It was a bit too pared down," admits Meckler. "There just wasn't enough time to go into the things we wanted to go into." Now luxuriating in 50 minutes' more stage time, the piece can home in on Edmundson's central theme of individual will and the deeper psychological motivations of the characters. As such, the romantic fantasies of the pious Maria are revealed by a shadowy male who flits around her as she says her prayers, while the ideologically befuddled Pierre is given his own Napoleon complex as he imagines conversations with the bellicose leader and Natasha's sexual awakening on meeting Kuragin is played out in the melodramatic duets of opera. There's more war, too – this time the cast will recreate Austerlitz in Part One, as well as Borodino in Part Two, and Edmundson has added a blisteringly modern-sounding speech from Andrei in which he rails against the futility and corruption of war.

With Jane Eyre and Madame Bovary among the classics under its belt, Shared Experience has never shied away from the giants of literature. "Part of the remit of the company has always been to do work that terrifies us," says Teale. "It would only be Shared Experience if, when you started, you had no idea of where you were going to end up." But War and Peace – which spans 15 years, bursts with more than 600 characters and gallops between city and country, ballroom and battlefield – requires a special kind of boldness. And the staging is audacious in its simplicity, eschewing technical wizardry in favour of a minimal set of giant mirrors, which will evoke the faded, mildewed grandeur of the Russian palaces, ominous thunderclouds scudding above the battlefield and narcissism of a gilded society on the brink of war.

"It does get hold of huge themes but it also deals in the human detail and those are interactions you don't want to have to play to the gods," explains Teale. "It looms in and out in terms of perspective."

In the London rehearsal studio the cast are working on one such switch in mood. The ensemble is working on a pre-battle scene in which the icon of the Holy Mother of Smolensk is brought out to bless the troops. Instantly, their reverent chants are replaced with the drum-beat of war and the Battle of Borodino bursts into life with only nine actors, who wave white flags and charge repeatedly at the audience in rhythmical waves.

"I know I can write anything – about charges and battles and all sorts of things – and Nancy and Polly will find a way of staging it. I didn't have to shy away from the epicness," says Edmundson. "It is an epic adventure – the closest thing to a novel that captures what it is to live."

Touring to 18 May ( www.shared experience.org.uk); currently showing at Nottingham Playhouse (0115-941 9419) until 17 February

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