This two-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s mighty work, part philosophical treatise, part history – and of course cliffhanging family saga - is the culmination of a cherished dream for writer Helen Edmundson and Shared Experience. Eleven years ago the National Theatre staged their one-evening adaptation, but its creators wanted more stage time for their story.
The fine female team of Edmundson and directors Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale are triumphantly vindicated in this thrilling retelling. The remarkable verve and fluidity of the company’s storytelling means the action never flags for a moment and the narrative is always clear and compelling as scenes dissolve into each other almost filmically on Angela Simpson’s sumptuous set – all polished marble and mirrors.
The beauty of the duality at the heart of this ‘shared experience’ is that on the journey shared by cast and audience, members of the latter really get to know and connect with members of the former both as actors and the characters they play. This connection is intensified over two performances on one day.
So for example you notice the touching casting of Sophie Roberts, both as Lisa, Prince Bolkonsky’s voluble young wife and the young son whose birth Lisa does not survive. And this is in addition to her sympathetic portrayal of long-suffering Sonya, who has the sweetness to surrender her childhood sweetheart Nikolai (likeable Jonathan Woolf) to the equally virtuous Maria.
Similarly, compare and contrast the two scheming beauties played by Vinette Robinson, Pierre’s treacherous first wife, Hélène and the saintly Maria’s more earthily susceptible French companion Mlle Bourienne.
The unfolding narratives of the principal protagonists are also compared and contrasted. Pierre is all too susceptible to Hélène’s obvious charms, ignoring her equally obvious flightiness, but just in time Maria spots her brother Anatole’s (suitably roguish Hywel Morgan) eye roving to Bourienne’s heaving bosom.
Thanks to lovely rounded performances from Marion Bailey and Geoffrey Beevers) as her parents, you can see how delightful, loving Natasha (luminous Louise Ford) is the product of the Rostov family's affectionate warmth and ebullience; while Maria’s quiet goodness (explored in depth by Katie Wimpenny) is forged rather by the bleakness of life on the Bolkonsky estate where she must rise above her insensitive father’s (convincingly depressed and depressing Geoffrey Beevers) put downs.
Watching relationships bloom and sometimes wither over two parts also intensifies the emotional narrative. There’s tension and ultimately satisfaction in watching Natasha move from puppy love to first love for David Sturzaker’s sympathetic and ultimately tragic Andrei, and her disastrous infatuation with Anatole maturing to a shared life with Pierre.
All this is played out against the backdrop of Napoleon’s advance on Russia, where Pierre is the touchstone, moving from unpopular admiration of Napoleon to a deep understanding of the futility of war. Barnaby Kay’s finely-nuanced performance is helped by the subtle framing of the action in present day St Petersburg where Kay begins as a tourist tracing his roots, helped by Des McAleer’s L’Hermitage attendant. So the scene is set for Pierre as onlooker as well as player – and for his engaging with spiritual mentors, a freemason and a peasant philosopher, both played by McAleer.
His other fellow traveller is Richard Attlee’s commanding, abrasive Napoleon, sometimes comically surreal, then all too real in his fatal arrogance. Tolstoy presents warmongering as an inevitable consequence of male notions of honour, patriotism and testosterone. And by showing us families torn apart by war he proves that it is as disastrous as it is inevitable, and peace often as short-lived as it is hard won. And Shared Experience proves that taking time to tell the story brings Tolstoy’s characters to vivid life and his message safely home.