Leo Tolstoy’s 1868-69 “War and Peace” includes heroism among its many topics, and there can hardly be a more heroic — some would say foolhardy — gesture than adapting this novel for the stage. The British touring company Shared Experience has been theatricalizing novels on and off since 1975, and “War and Peace” might seem like their “Nicholas Nickleby” — the summation of a style and an ethos that have been much imitated but rarely bettered.
The result is a 4 1/2-hour distillation that excites and irritates in equal measure, and is also bound, it must be said, to improve as the run continues. A co-production with the Royal National Theater, which has booked Shared Experience stagings before, the evening doesn’t so much suggest the density of Tolstoy as it does the pulpy and extravagant emotions of an epic text like “Gone With the Wind.”
But just when adaptor Helen Edmundson seems to be breathlessly annotating the novel rather than exploring it, co-directors Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale hit upon an image so rich and right that physical theater barely begins to describe it. At its best, Shared Experience reinvigorates the imagination, using classic texts as a trampoline for a collective catharsis that exists way beyond words.
Those moments aren’t as frequent in “War and Peace” as they have been in other Shared Experience projects, most recently their tremulously moving “Mill on the Floss” two seasons ago. The good ones — the laying down of a revolutionary flag, a mimed sexual gavotte — are resonant enough to push the evening forward, while the lesser ones slip by. You may leave the Cottesloe having had enough of short, contrapuntal scenes whose weepy rhetoric — “I don’t understand anything anymore,” says an anguished Countess Rostov (Barbara Marten) — debases the characters’ feelings. (Pierre even gets a line about “the battle that is life.”) But you’re unlikely to forget the sight of Maria Bolkonsky (Helen Schlesinger in a part tailor-made for Cherry Jones), the ever-selfless princess, as she is met with a blindfolded male seducer who moves her from self-loathing to love: physical transformation as transfixing theater.
This version casts 15 actors in 72 parts, not all of them human. (At one point, the cast becomes a rampaging pack of dogs.) How to get an audience into the piece? Edmundson presents a British tourist of Russian ancestry, who is seen with an attendant (Sam Kelly) pondering the removal of portraits of Decembrist revolutionaries from the Hermitage’s Borodino gallery. Then the man removes his raincoat and becomes Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezuhov (Richard Hope), the visionary whose dreams of a Napoleonic republic in Russia are swept aside by history. The attendant, in turn, reappears as a kind of Everyserf, coming into his own as the suffering Platon Karataev, the wounded soldier who precipitates Pierre’s final epiphany.
Hope’s sweet-faced, expansive Pierre shares the evening’s focus with the mercurial Natasha (Anne-Marie Duff), a silver-voiced adolescent who becomes infatuated at one point or another with virtually all the men in her midst. Duff isn’t yet able to capture completely the headstrong Natasha’s quixotic changes of mood, but she’s physically alive to every charged choreographed encounter that movement director Liz Rankin can provide.
As her beloved (for a while) Andrei, Ronan Vibert is far too cool to suggest nihilism cracking open to give way to feeling. Although his ultimate assertion, “Love is God; love is what binds us to life,” echoes the attendant’s first-scene remark, “It is love which endures,” this Andrei never convinces us that he has had any experience of that emotion.
If “War and Peace” sometimes feels emotionally thin or incomplete, it usually looks terrific on Bunny Christie’s evocatively bare set — skillfully lit by Chris Davey — in which a handful of props (a battered piano, chairs, some empty picture frames) serve as battle-fields, salons, even an opera house. Cutlery, too, gets a real workout, pressed into service for a joust one minute, as a fan the next. That the play sounds great is due to Peter Salem’s original score, backed with Russian songs from Helen Chadwick: There’s more true Russianness in five minutes of this play than in all the tired birch trees in the West End’s recent (failed) bio-drama “Tolstoy.”
Perhaps, then, one can’t really fault the play’s creators for missing that vast, enriching scope which such diverse talents as King Vidor, Prokofiev and Woody Allen (in “Love and Death”) have themselves tackled over time. In the sketchy third act — easily the least successful of the three — the griefs pile up as Moscow burns, but one is merely made weary rather than moved. You come away from the novel ennobled by Tolstoy’s vision of suffering in a universe where we may or may not be free. This stage version offers narrative propulsion in abundance; for profundity one had best look elsewhere.