It takes determination to tackle War and Peace in six hours – determination, stamina and nerve. So there was tension as well as excitement among the audience before Shared Experience's production in Nottingham. Committing to watching both parts of Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Tolstoy's novel on the same day means that a well-upholstered seat is essential. Fortunately, Nottingham Playhouse, last year voted the UK's Most Welcoming Theatre, is up to the task.
This adaptation opens in a gallery, and a theme of portraits and mirrors runs throughout. Two picture frames are huge props, doubling as doorways, windows, and boxes at the opera, framing tableaux in moments of stillness during bustling action, and acting as mirrors for the characters to share their thoughts with us. The set itself is mirrored, which gives depth and atmosphere to the stage, although during one scene I did find myself watching the reflection of a stagehand in the wings working the snow machine.
Props are kept to a minimum, but careful lighting and subtlety in the placing of a chair, or the change in position that enables a piano to become a cart or a window ledge, provides the audience with sufficient detail and focuses attention on the actors.
Katie Wimpenny's outstanding performance as Maria, all repression and pent-up emotion, deserves special mention, but this is truly a team production; Shared Experience clearly have complete confidence in one another. The actors jump easily from character to character, and their movement around the stage is exactly choreographed. I do, however, regret seeing the play from the stalls. A seat in the circle would have given a clearer view of the action, particularly the battles and the patterns of the steps in the ballroom scene, and would have allowed a better appreciation of the precision as the Holy Mother of Smolensk is brought out before the Battle of Borodino. There is real anticipation as the huge icon is shown to the Russian soldiers, contrasting with the showing of the portrait of Napoleon's son to a seemingly lonely and isolated Emperor.
While never losing the scale of the novel, Edmundson's script allows us to become involved with the stories of individuals against a background of vast events. It is a script of humour and power, and has contemporary relevance – a story of families caught up in a protracted, futile war, and the tale of a man with ambitions to become President of Europe.
Touring to 18 May (020-7434 9248; www.sharedexperience.org.uk)
Robert Lee, Retired, NottinghamReuse content