A battle with such a seminal work of literature should leave a little more blood on the stage
English/German theatre company Gob Squad are renowned for their improv-heavy agitprop theatre; unpredictable, even dangerous, they speak directly to our most pressing contemporary concerns. It is so out of character for them to adapt a novel for the stage – not to mention Tolstoy’s infamously epic Russian masterpiece of the Napoleonic wars, War and Peace – that it feels like something of a joke.
It isn’t a joke, exactly, but then it isn’t an adaptation either. Tolstoy is merely a springboard for a wider discussion about our capacity – our tendency – to tolerate violence in an otherwise civilised society. Gob Squad take a minor detail from the novel and fashion it into a major motif: the concept of the Russian salon, that ironically French invention whereby ‘society women’ invited artists, philosophers and other influential people to their houses to discuss the state of things. There’s a comparison to be made between the ‘salon culture’ in War and Peace and our contemporary way of engaging with and understanding international events; both are democratic, highly opinionated – but largely coddled and remote. It’s an uncomfortably apt metaphor.
The play opens with the formal introductions. Audience members are selected in the foyer to be ‘announced’ on entrance; three of these volunteers end up seated at a table at the front of the stage. They are our surrogates in this salon, chatting with the actors, drinking wine and, more appropriately, vodka and brandy. They are also being filmed and projected onto screens onstage. The effect is collegiate, in the sense that it genuinely involves these random players in the conversation, but also rather haphazard. Who knows if these meta-discussions will be relevant to the play’s themes?
Every now and then, the discussions are interrupted by ‘entertainments’ performed by the actors. These include a rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ with a wayward harp, and a piece called “Tolstoy’s Dance of History”, which is basically an actor in a beard performing an elaborate ribbon routine. They are certainly funny, and serve to undercut any pompousness the material may suggest, but they also tend to lurch from one idea to another, rather like sketch comedy.
Many of the conversations and interludes feel superfluous or tangential to the central idea – that it is virtually impossible to live a moral life in the midst of war; and when this central idea is employed, it is so vast and abstract that it fails to engage emotionally. Tolstoy relegates Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I to minor players, but Gob Squad give them a pivotal moment in the play. This seems a tacit confession of failure, given the novel’s insistence on the primacy of ordinary people struggling to live under the influence of ‘great personages’.
The second half of the play, in particular, is unwieldy and tottering. Sections work well enough on their own – the audition of the character of Pierre Bezukhov is a brilliant and poignant reminder of the universality of great literary figures – but they never build on previous sequences, so there is little sense of momentum. Nothing is boring, but nothing escalates.
The performances of Tatiana Saphir, Sharon Smith, Bastian Trost and Simon Will are quite lovely, uniformly cheeky, subversive and generous. The actors’ personal details – their cultural background, their sexuality, their pregnancy status – pepper the show, but it seems a pity that their family histories (two of the performers had grandfathers who fought on opposite sides of WW2) merely bookend the show, instead of functioning as the dramatic heart of the piece.
The idea of the salon as a deferential and highly codified way of discussing the world seems to have infected Gob Squad’s dramaturgy on this show. The political points are rather tentative and sporadic, and the desire to discuss things broadly – without the painful specificity Tolstoy brings to his grand narrative – results in a rather bloodless, intellectual affair. Academic and distracted. Rather like a polite chat over the samovar.
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