Adapted and Directed by Doris de Vries
100 characters, 2 wars, & 1300 pages, balls, gunfights, marriages, death, & vodka.
Gift Horse Theatre Company set themselves quite a challenge choosing War and Peace. An epic of Russian nineteenth century literature with multiple plot lines that span several years of war and upheaval. Added to this the complexities of performing in outdoor venues, without the aid of the lighting, sound, stage and backstage equipment to be found in a theatre. War and Peace is a very substantial book, and the cast joke at the beginning that they have had to be selective in choosing how to fill the two plus hours stage time. Thankfully they were discerning and managed to put together a fully engrossing and enjoyable production that brings to life the main characters that many are familiar with, without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail or side narratives.
Gift Horse make great use of the natural surroundings. Staged in the magical and maze like gardens of Corke Lodge in Bray, just outside Dublin, the beautiful surroundings add to the atmosphere of conviviality. About one minute in it started to spit with rain but this didn’t deter the audience who sheltered under trees and ponchos to ensure they didn’t miss a minute. Choosing to perform only in relatively small venues, with a maximum audience of 80, the setting is intimate. It feels almost as though the back row of the audience round off the stage. Sound designer Daniel O’Brien artfully integrates sound with scenes of movement, almost dancelike, that progress the narrative while still allowing each scene transition to feel smooth.
To the right of the stage is a chess set. Military manoeuvres are demonstrated with pawns being thrown to the side and kings and queens moving into defensive positions. It is a simple and clever idea that works well. The visual element helps the audience keep up with the big changes in the novel; Russia and France finding a truce, Russia joining with their old ally and turning against former friend Austria. Each actor plays multiple characters. The main costumes are beige so that jackets, skirts, capes and so on can be added with ease to denote character change. Well done by costume designer Mae Leahy this also prevents any confusion.
There are fourth wall breaking moments that are full of comedy; a sly wink to the audience that loops back to the early moments where they held up the novel in hardback and laughed at its magnitude. These moments are complemented by the occasional periods when they read short passages directly from the book to the amusement of the audience. Gift Horse have a knack for finding the humour in even the darkest of Tolstoy’s imaginings.
Although not a perfect play – a few actors need to work on voice projection, which admittedly is particularly difficult when battling the sounds of picnics, ponchos rustling, rain falling, trees whispering – one left feeling buoyant and entertained. Ending with a standing ovation in the twilight, this was a joy of a show.
Touring Outdoor Venues Until 2nd August 2022