War and Peace takes on truly epic proportions at Hampstead Theatre

Directors have successfully adapted Tolstoy s classic to create a five-hour play, writes Bridget Galton TOLSTOY S War and Peace is a byword for those dauntingly long classics that readers feel ashamed for not tackling. So it may sound nigh on impossible

Directors have successfully adapted Tolstoy's classic to create a five-hour play, writes Bridget Galton

TOLSTOY'S War and Peace is a byword for those dauntingly long classics that readers feel ashamed for not tackling.

So it may sound nigh on impossible to successfully adapt the 1868 Russian masterpiece for the stage.

Eleven years ago, Shared Experience directors Polly Teale and Nancy Meckler, and writer Helen Edmundson, did just that at the National Theatre.

Critics marvelled at how 15 actors captured the thrilling sweep and tragic vision of Tolstoy's saga of family love and conflict set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.

The same team has now revived the production, adding new material to run to two parts over five hours and 10 minutes, which can be seen on consecutive nights or on the same day.

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Edmundson, who has previously adapted Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for Shared Experience and had a recent hit with Coram Boy at the National Theatre, is skilled at extracting the human detail, psychological motivations and dramatic potential from richly complex novels.

And Teale and Meckler rank among the UK's top theatre directors - their jointly-run Shared Experience Theatre Company is famed for producing physical and text based work that celebrates the collaboration between actor and audience.

"It's been a 10 year ambition to get the production back on its feet and tour it," says Meckler, who previously directed eight productions in the old Hampstead Theatre building and is married to former artistic director David Aukin.

"We wanted to give it more breathing space and work in more material. It's a bit of a pity that some people are so frightened by the length because audiences have really enjoyed the feeling of watching an event and said the time flew by. It's very much a shared experience with the actors."

Meckler praises Edmundson's adaptation and points out many films spring from literature but exist independently as movies without dwelling on their source.

"The book is full of story, it's a wonderful story and Helen is not too reverential. She always writes a play based on the book rather than feeling she has to pay homage to the source material. She refuses to have a narrator figure because you are saying, this is a book. It has to be theatre that lives in its own right. We try to make a play, not do the book, so there is no need to have read the book."

Meckler says the key to successfully translating such a sprawling novel from page to stage lies in extracting one or two clear themes.

"Helen has been able to really grapple with the material, find what's dramatic in it and create a play on its own with structure and thrust. Most plays you can usually say what they are about but a huge novel is about so many things. To make it into a play you have to choose one strong theme of what your theatre version is about and only use the material that serves that theme. Helen has concentrated on four main characters and their relationship to the theme - the extent to which an individual will can shape our own lives or events. Different characters have different attitudes about whether or not they can make a difference in the world."

The other key to its success lies in Shared Experience's tactic of giving as much weight to the visual and physical story as the scripted text.

Critics have commented on the memorable stage pictures conjured up by the two directors - recreating major Napoleonic battles with a minimal set of a piano, chairs and empty picture frames.

"We work in a very filmic way," agrees Meckler, who lives in Maida Vale. "You try to evoke the life of the piece through the actors' bodies rather than with big scenic effects. Light and sound play a huge part. Suggesting something is often more powerful than trying to represent it. You ask the audience to use their imaginations by giving them one simple visual element and getting them to do the rest."

The co-directing process has gone smoothly on the production because Meckler and Teale share "similar tastes and a common aesthetic".

"It wouldn't work with everyone but it does with us. Because it's such a huge piece we had to divide the scenes up. You need to talk to each other a lot about what the starting points are, and when we are both in the same room one person leads while the other contributes but doesn't try to take over."

During 40 years as a director, American-born Meckler has tried collaborative collective theatre productions and concluded: "You always have to know who is leading and making the final decision at any moment."

So although Shared Experience's rehearsal process is an "open forum" where actors are invited to throw in ideas and try new things, Meckler says: "It's a forum for exploration without us saying it's a democracy."

When Meckler started directing she had few female role models. "I fell into it, it never occurred to me it was a job I could do because there were very, very few other women doing it. Now we have many women as role models an enormous number have emerged."

Her own career has encompassed both small scale new writing work and in the last three years working "on a big stage with a big canvas and a lot of people" for the RSC.

She combines the work with co-running Shared Experience, which is also renowned for its strong work with women writers and directors.

"We are probably often seen as a feminist company, whatever that means. Without having an agenda to promote feminist philosophy, we are interested in women and gravitate towards women writers and projects about women who have tried to live full lives in restricted situations."

War and Peace runs at Hampstead Theatre until May 11.