War of the words

'War and Peace' has all the hallmarks of a classic Shared Experience adaptation - but is that enough?
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The Independent Culture
Tolstoy the man had a bruising brush with the London stage recently when James Goldman's dire bioplay deservedly closed after a fortnight's run. Tolstoy the writer gets a much better deal of it now with a new stage version of War and Peace, co-produced by Shared Experience and the National Theatre and mounted in the Cottesloe.

This was only to be expected from the creative team (director, Nancy Meckler; author, Helen Edmundson) whose award-winning adaptation of Anna Karenina gave the themes of that novel a heightened and searching theatrical life. Many of the hallmarks of this and their other collaborations are again present: the simultaneous action that draws attention to correspondences and contrasts; the physicalising of suppressed thoughts and impulses; the eye for spatial poetry etc. In my view, though, these elements recur here in a slightly less satisfactory form.

The brilliantly illuminating decision in Anna Karenina was to bring Anna and Levin, characters who hardly meet in the book, on stage together in an almost telepathic conjunction, Levin acting as Anna's confidant and conscience. This version of War and Peace gets up to similar tricks, giving Richard Hope's excellent gentle giant of a Pierre a chatty fantasy relationship with Napoleon. This device certainly leaves you in no doubt about Pierre's changing attitude to Corsica's most famous export, which ranges all the way from emulous hero-worship to a would-be assassin's crusading hatred. But the uncomfortable jokey tone of some of these encounters may remind you less of Tolstoy than of Woody Allen's Tolstoy parody Love and Death and the fantasy Napoleon unduly undercuts the real one (both played by John Warnaby).

There is also an attempt, not so brilliantly achieved as in the Shared Experience Mill on the Floss, to make the ending implicit in the opening. Edmundson has decided that, after the novel's close, idealistic Pierre would have gone on to be one of the Decembrists executed for rising against the tyrannous new Tsar in 1825. The proceedings therefore begin with a modern-day tourist visiting the Borodino gallery in the Hermitage where the portraits of the Decembrists were destroyed. The contemporary attendant (Sam Kelly) enunciates the same philosophy of fatalism and loving harmony that Pierre will later hear from the same actor as the prisoner Katayev. A spooky fellow-feeling across time is created as the tourist metamorphoses into Pierre and the characters of War and Peace reappear like ghosts among the blotched mirrors.

Fifteen actors; 72 roles; a four-and-a-half hour epic presented not in the Olivier but in the National's smallest space. The scale is, I think, on all counts, finely judged - in refreshing contrast to the RSC's recent Les Enfants du Paradis. Meckler, Edmundson, and designer Bunny Christie create an endlessly fluid, expertly choreographed world where a formal dance can suddenly be reimagined as a military charge, where ladies' fans are composed of knives and forks, and where simple props go through multiple changes of identity. The stylised juxtaposings (with Anne-Marie Duff's impulsive, gamine Natasha talking to her mirror and Helen Schlesinger's anguished Maria talking to God) are all pointed and suggestive. And yet, and yet. I suspect that it will be people new to the work of Shared Experience who will be the most impressed.

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