Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mission Impossible? Fifteen Actors for 72 Roles, Four Hours for the World's Longest Novel: 'War and Peace' as Staged by the Royal National Theatre

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mission Impossible? Fifteen Actors for 72 Roles, Four Hours for the World's Longest Novel: 'War and Peace' as Staged by the Royal National Theatre

Article excerpt

There are so many different ways to travel through the landscape of Tolstoy's War and Peace that, because you cannot possibly follow them all (only Tolstoy did that), the first thing required is a line across the narrative map.

"Our War and Peace," says Nancy Meckler, co-directing the new Shared Experience version previewing at the Royal National Theatre, "is a piece of theatre for people who've never read the book. In adapting novels for the stage, you must be as irreverent as you can. You're not there to serve literature. I told the company: let's think we're doing the ballet, the symphony, the painting or the opera of War and Peace, but never the book."

In the novel, fantasy lovers do not walk out of mirrors and across pianos blindfold; heroines do not double as drummer boys on the battlefield and pipe-smoking whores; social dancing is not redefined as an exhilarating form of military charge. This is physical theatre, which can imagine the hidden existence and unwritten thoughts of characters remembered, however distantly, by the readers of War and Peace, like the people in their own lives.

Tolstoy's masterpiece is not only a landscape; it is an inexhaustible source from which 20th century artists have drawn whatever moral suits their purpose and time. Prokofiev wrote a stupendous weepie opera in the mid-Forties under the shadow of Stalin's great patriotic war. Moral: Russia Will Never Succumb. Two exiles from the Third Reich, Alfred Neumann and Erwin Piscator, produced a didactic stage play in the 1950s, drafting Tolstoy into the ranks of those fighting conservative determinism and the threat of nuclear extinction. Moral (one among many, for this War and Peace is wagging its index finger off): No More War.

King Vidor made a Hollywood movie in 1956, with Audrey Hepburn as a breathless, pony-tailed Natasha and Henry Fonda, listening, watching and gazing in depth, as Pierre. Moral: Paramount Can Do It (But Mel Ferrer Certainly Can't).

True to the arsenal-culture of the time, the Soviet Union stockpiled and, in due course, counter-attacked. Sergei Bondarchuk's 1967 film was twice as long as Vidor's, and entered The Guinness Book of Records for the number of Red Army extras it threw at the battle of Borodino. Moral: Mosfilm Does It Better: Woody Allen's Love and Death (1975), a wonderfully silly parody of Tolstoy, Vidor, Bergman, Eisenstein and anything Slav that came to mind on the set on the day, showed 101 ways to collapse a Kalashnikov without really trying, and how to goose the wrong dames at the opera when your scabbard gets out of hand. Moral: Death may actually be better than Life, and the gags will keep on coming.

There has even been a full-length ballet (Valery Panov's Krieg und Frieden, West Berlin, 1981, unfondly remembered in that city as a crowded affair, dripping with over-subsidised kitsch); and at least two televised versions of the novel here, with Nicol Williamson and Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. Everybody wants to be Pierre, the bumbler on the battlefield, and no actor gets thanked for choosing the tougher alternative of Andrei, the loving and tormented prince. It was of course Bondarchuk who played Pierre in his own movie, and Ferrer who made a sulky chocolate soldier of Andrei.

Fifteen Shared Experience actors are this month taking more than 70 characters through hundreds of costume changes and lighting cues. Having established their route through the events of the story, Meckler, her co-director Polly Teale and playwright Helen Edmundson--the team that produced, with half this number of actors, the highly successful Anna Karenina in 1992 and The Mill on the Flossin 1994--chose to build their War and Peace on Tolstoy's theme of the human will. …

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