Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
This is a week for epic theatre. As the RSC brings Shakespeare’s history plays to North London’s Roundhouse (to be reviewed next week), down the road the Hampstead is hosting Shared Experience’s hugely ambitious and deeply rewarding stage version of Tolstoy’s great Russian novel.
As with Shakespeare, a nation’s history courses through Tolstoy’s characters. Central is the dashing Prince Andrei (David Sturzaker), who craves the valour of battle, and his thoughtful and bumbling friend Pierre (Barnaby Kay), an heir who yearns to swap his dissolute lifestyle for the kind of discipline exemplified by his country’s enemy, Napoleon. The strutting French emperor (Richard Atlee) is a mocking presence in Pierre’s imagination until the ravages of war eventually force a crisis of conscience about the murderous cost of big ideas.
Nancy Meckler’s and Polly Teale’s production moves with balletic precision from Russia’s frivolous high society, where Louise Ford’s pretty Princess grows into a woman of substance, to the country home where Andrei’s fierce father (a terrific Jeffrey Kissoon) barks orders at his long-suffering daughter Maria (Kate Wimpenny), and to the killing fields, where tens of thousands clashed and died in a day. The 15-strong cast who play over 70 characters are superb throughout. But the real achievement here lies in Helen Edmundson’s adaptation which, since the play first appeared in 1996, has been expanded into two parts that can be seen on the same day or on consecutive evenings. Edmundson finds her way into the vastness of Tolstoy’s book via a modern-day tourist who arrives at St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum just before closing time.
Tolstoy’s characters emerge as ghosts from the aristocratic portraits, and Meckler and Teale use the idea for their production’s recurring motif, with much of the action played out within gilt picture frames. Where the co-directors falter is with the battle scenes, at one stage inadequately conveyed with the choreographed waving of handkerchiefs. But the lucidity of Edmundson’s adaptation, the skill with which she threads into her play Tolstoy’s theme about the mirage of an individual’s free will, makes a daunting six hours fly by.
Tel: 020 7722 9301