It's an ambitious project to transfer Tolstoy's famous door-stop of a novel into a haemorrhoid-inducing theatre marathon but who better to take on this task than the incredible Shared Experience company? Weighing in at around five and a half hours of theatre, this could be an ordeal were it not for the superb, pacy adaptation and the excellent performances.
It's impossible to summarise the plot of such a lengthy piece here. The story concerns Russian society during the Napoleonic War through the lives of various aristocratic characters. The novel is a philosophical work on the most sweeping and fundamental themes of life: love, passion and duty; youth and experience; war and peace and how history is made. Much of the action concerns the development of Pierre Bezuhov, brilliantly played by Barnaby Kay. Pierre is a misfit who suddenly inherits a large fortune and earnestly desires to do the right thing. However, his various schemes fail and he is left with doubts about how and why one should do good. Inspired by the principles of the French Revolution, he endorses Napoleon's domination of Europe while most of Russian society wish to see him defeated. Pierre is disillusioned as he witnesses the how the lofty ideals descend into cruelty and ultimately he makes a clumsy attempt to assassinate the dictator.
There are many other strands to the story with countless love affairs, heroic fighting and personal tragedies. With a cast of just fifteen playing numerous characters it must present a real challenge for them and yet every one gave sterling performances throughout. The real star of this play, however, is Helen Edmundson's remarkable adaptation. She has cleverly condensed the novel whilst keeping both the complex characterisation and the delicate investigation of weighty themes. Despite all this, the story never seems rushed or incomplete and she evens manages to find time for moments of humour.
The play is divided into two performances with the choice of seeing them over two evenings or both in one day with a break for dinner. We chose the latter option and with such a compelling production, the day flew by. My charming companion did note that she was feeling 'intellectually tired' by the final act but I think this may not have been the result of deep consideration of the human condition but rather the consequence of drinking gin in every interval.
This play deserves to be widely seen and, happily, it is to tour Britain and reside in London for 6 weeks. I hope that it will once again win the Nottingham Playhouse recognition for producing excellent theatre in the regions.
War and Peace runs at Nottingham Playhouse until Sunday 17th February 2008 before a national tour.