Theatre: History: the first casualty of war

Tolstoy's epic `War and Peace' has been adapted for two movies, an opera, a TV drama, a radio play -and now for the Royal National Theatre. Jasper Rees on how to cut a long story short
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Helen Edmundson began researching her adaptation of War and Peace in July of last year. Her first act was to plough straight through the novel once, twice, then a third time annotating every chapter in detail - even the monumentally dull ones in the epilogue in which Tolstoy gives us his theory of history (which no one ever reads). In the Penguin edition that comes to a grand total of 4,332 pages, just for starters. The primary source conquered, she then attacked the criticism, and even met the critics. To do this she went to Russia, as she had done when dramatising the comparatively anorexic Anna Karenina. There she visited the localities depicted on Tolstoy's vast canvas, interviewed historians and quizzed professors of literature, who, she says, "were all disparaging of my attempts to dramatise this novel, which obviously they worship".

Somehow, into this schedule she also managed to set aside the time to write the play, the first collaboration between Shared Experience and the Royal National Theatre, that opens later this month. At four hours, it's roughly as long as the average Hamlet. Dividing 72 roles between 18 performers, it turns out she overdid it: the first preview, last Friday, went on far too long, and Edmundson is having to amputate 15 minutes' worth of text, the equivalent of 50 pages of the novel (which, by the time she'd handed in her adaptation, she'd obviously read for a fourth time).

It may look like a heavy schedule, but Edmundson's 11-month encounter with War and Peace was actually a bit of a picnic. Other versions of Mother Russia's national epic have tended to boil in the pot for far longer. Tolstoy himself set the tone, spending six years doing nothing but researching and writing the novel, published serially and then in six volumes in 1869. Prokofiev's operatic account went through several metamorphoses over 11 years as he compulsively bolted on scenes that made it logistically more unwieldy, and by the time he died (on the same day as Stalin in 1953) he had never seen the full work performed. The lavish Hollywood-Italian movie version, released in 1956, starring Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei and Herbert Lom as Napoleon, was bedevilled by the difficulties common to most projects overmanned by script-writers: three were Italian, one was the director King Vidor, and another, Irwin Shaw, removed his name from the credits in protest against Vidor's nightly rewrites on set. "All the genius of Tolstoy went out the window," recalled Henry Fonda, who played the frustrated idealist, Pierre Bezukhov.

In length of performance as well as gestation, the Shared Experience version is among the sprints. In a decade when Hollywood got hooked on the corpulent epic, the Vidor movie clocked in at half an hour less, while the full opera is half an hour more. (Like Edmundson, Prokofiev's initial instinct was to stage it over two nights.) It was in the late Sixties that adaptations really started to put on weight. The Soviet film from 1968, written, directed by and starring (as Pierre) Sergei Bondarchuk, is a meaty eight hours. From the same vintage, when the BBC discovered the stamina and finance to mount epics, Radio 4 delivered 20 hour-long episodes adapted by Michael Bakewell and broadcast in 1969-70. Not to be outgunned, BBC TV weighed in in 1972 with its famous adaptation by Jack Pullman, also 20 hours long, in preparation for which the director John Davies was told by the head of serials to go home and read for three months.

Although an adaptation by Mikhail Bulgakov was premiered in Leningrad in 1931, it has not done much travelling. The standard theatrical text - possibly because it's easily the shortest - was written by the German director Erwin Piscator, the great progenitor of epic theatre who had collaborated with Bertolt Brecht in 1920s Berlin. Premiered in 1942 in the Studio Theatre, New York, where Piscator was living as an exile from Nazi Germany, it arrived in West Berlin in 1955. A bit like Napoleon, it was seen all over Europe. A free translation by Robert David MacDonald, a student of Piscator, invaded the Bristol Old Vic in 1962, and Broadway the following year. The same script, starring Nicol Williamson as Pierre, was filmed in a Granada studio in 1963 and shown in two stripling parts of 50 and 90 minutes. "It shouldn't last more than three hours," says MacDonald. "When I was doing it in Houston they had to pay another whole session for stage crews if it went over three hours. I said to the cast, `Play it as fast as you fucking can', and it was perfectly good."

Piscator tackled the theatre's perennial problem with staging battles by peopling the scaled-down field of Borodino with foot-high toy soldiers. The opera doesn't have a battle scene proper at all. In her fact-gathering trip to Russia with the Cottesloe production's designer, Bunny Christie, Edmundson actually visited the site of Borodino, where a museum exhibits, among other mementoes, Napoleon's bed and Field Marshal Kutuzov's carriage. "It was a really moving experience," she says. "It really made us understand that it actually happened, that it isn't just a story." Partly for logistical reasons, the show will attempt only one big battle scene - "because otherwise it just starts getting naff". (And as a result the military plotlines involving Nikolai Rostov and Prince Andrei, two of the five main characters, have been substantially downsized.)

With time and money at their disposal, the screen versions cashed in on the military photo-opportunities. Vidor enlisted 5,000 Italian national servicemen in a sumptuous visual spectacle. The BBC, filming the war scenes in the former Yugoslavia with 1,000 Yugoslav territorials playing both the French and Russian armies, re-enacted Borodino on the pot-holed site of a World War One killing field. Bondarchuk's battle scenes are equally breathtaking, but carry an extra cargo of brooding relevance: in the year the film patriotically showed the Russian army seeing off Napoleon's frost- bitten troops, the Red Army was quashing a minor local disturbance in Prague.

On her tour of Moscow, Edmundson found that, because such a grand vision could only have come off with the Party's official backing, Bondarchuk's account is lionised by ex-Communists but deplored by ex-dissidents. Either way, it's one of the versions of War and Peace that, not always voluntarily, makes reference to a contemporary European conflict. The Piscator adaptation, premiered as it was in New York in 1942, drew significance from the fact that America had just joined the war and Piscator's compatriots had invaded Russia. With Leningrad under siege the same year, Prokofiev was encouraged to stress the novel's patriotic elements. To his 11-scene piano score he added heroic marches, arias and choruses, shifting the focus from the domestic scenes that will be played up by Edmundson's adaptation. "The Mother Russia business and golden Moscow and all that sort of thing is very evident," says Sir Edward Downes, the great Russophile conductor who chose War and Peace, with its generous helping of more than 50 singing roles, as the ideally momentous work with which to inaugurate the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

These days, likewise, it would be difficult to view the re-edited video of John Davies's BBC version, originally made at the height of the Cold War, without wondering how many of the Yugoslav volunteers went on to die in a real war. The surprise, given these unwelcome resonances, is that most adaptations of Tolstoy's novel save time by ignoring its historical theories. "The opera house is not a place for theorising," says Sir Edward. "There's a lot of that, which, of course, isn't drama," agrees Davies, "and is nothing to do with what we were trying to get on the screen." Only Edmundson's peacetime version demurs: "The theories haven't gone completely. A lot of the philosophy is gone, but the basics are there quite strongly."

They're also conspicuously absent from the down-market sequel to War and Peace published in Russia earlier this year. The plot does, however, tell of Pierre Bezukhov's involvement in the Decembrist uprising of 1825, his trial and exile to Siberia. In an un-Tolstoyan character development, his wife, Natasha, is even found inspecting her naked body in the mirror. It sounds like there's a television series in it.

n `War and Peace' opens at the Cottesloe, Royal National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2252) on 25 June. The BBC TV `War and Peace' is available on video