It’s on Hemmingway’s list of must-read books for inspiring writers. TIME magazine ranked it third on its list of ten greatest novels of all time. Since being published in 1869 War and Peace has not been out of print. But how many people have actually read it? It is the 4th most popular book British people lie about having read. With over 135 characters and countless subplots it would be pretty easy to convince people you’ve read it. But for those of you who don’t wish to live the lie, but remain tempted to drop Tolstoy into a conversation, the Berlin based artistic collective The Gob Squad have you covered. Although perhaps not in a word-for-word, verisimilitude type of sense if that’s what you were hoping for.
Here as part of the Melbourne Festival, The Gob Squad have condensed the 1440-page novel into a snappy 105-minute production.
The Squad prefer to describe themselves as a ‘seven headed monster with one body’. They are renowned for enlisting audiences in their performances. In their production Revolution Now the collective storm the theatre. The doors are locked. The revolution begins. Armed with props including electric guitars, the audience is filmed singing and debating manifestos. The footage is broadcasted to passers-by on the street. The theatre’s doors are only unlocked when their aim is reached: ‘inspiring one passer-by to stop, listen and join us.’
Then there’s their production Are you With Us which again pulls audience members from passivity. The Squad describes the play as ‘Half group therapy, half performance nightmare…’
With this in mind I went to the theatre early with the aim of enlisting some Dutch courage. It seems like most people had this idea with the bar packed. Conversations halted when the crowd began to notice four people dressed in outfits that wouldn’t look amiss on Lady Gaga — champagne satin tunics with voluminous shoulder pads, sheer stockings and platform boots. They chatted to people at random and jotted down information in small notebooks. The performance had already begun.
Once inside the theatre the actors introduced themselves and several audience members that they chatted to in the bar. The introductions were sweet, the specific details shared created an intimate and companionable atmosphere. The divide between the seats and stage was swiftly eliminated. We all become a part of the production.
The actors explained that tonight is less of a blow-by-blow account of the novel, rather it is a salon — a gathering of minds to discuss and exchange ideas.
The actors keep three audience members on stage. They all sit at a table covered in an assortment of liquors. The discussion begins with the question: are we in a time of war or of peace? It is an arresting question. The three audience members are somewhat flustered and are unable to readily express their thoughts. The actors are reassuring and guide them past their initial discomforts with liquor, charming conversation and a few un-PC jokes. With this being the 13th production of the show in English, the actors expertly host the salon, creating and maintaining a sense of kinship and community.
The salon conversations are occasionally interrupted, including a bizarre fashion parade and a hilarious rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ on a harp. These moments of light relief ensure that the tone of the evening never spirals towards despair at the current state of geopolitics.
In fact, the production is like an episode of The Mighty Boosh – outrageously camp, thought-provoking, utterly heartwarming and packed with psychedelic haute couture. The Gob Squad take you on a journey through time and space. They suspend reality and ‘literally’ transport the audience into the hearts and minds of the Tolstoy’s characters.
While you may not get the specific details of the novel, The Gob Squad’s production gives you it’s beating heart. You’ll walk away with deep philosophical questions brewing, insights into your own thoughts and perhaps even a few new mates.