War and Peace — Did You Get All That?

Covering all of Leo Tolstoy’s mythically long-winded novel is no task for mere mortals, but Ryan Gladstone is up to the task. War and Peace is a funny, smart, and heartfelt treatment of one of history’s greatest works of literature.

The story is told in many layers: the plot of the novel itself, often played straight but poked fun at when necessary; the echoes of Tolstoy’s own life, including his depression and his youthful habits of gambling and womanizing; the historical context of the Russian setting; and the context of Tolstoy’s own writing of the novel, including the fact that his wife had to transcribe every word because no-one else, it seemed, could read his handwriting (himself included).

There are moments when all these layers align like the lenses of a telescope to give even the uninitiated a glimpse into the world of the Tolstoy buff, and into the vision that underlies this famous novel. In other moments though, things get a little dizzy.

Many artistic projects involve condensing enormous amounts of information into a tiny interval—a challenge as tormenting as it is tantalizing. To me, it seems there are two main approaches to pulling it off:

  1. Wittle, test, wittle, test, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Work on it until your best friends stop leaving you voicemail and craft a performance where every word and every motion conveys new and vital information. Make something clean and punchy with nary a hair out of place and time it to the minute. (If you do this and someone’s cellphone goes off, you’re legally allowed to throw them into False Creek.)

  2. Work out the main notes you want to hit and when, and spend the rest of the time going nuts. Serve up an Irish stew of erudition, plot points, and anecdotes. It’s a different show every time, and the audience will get what they get.

Though wonderfully committed, Gladstone’s performance seems to fall in between. I found him too easily sidetracked for 1 and too concerned about time for 2. His constant checking of the clock had the unfortunate effect of making me anxious about the time. Still, this may only have been a hitch of this particular performance; and outside of the problems one would expect in covering this whopper of a classic novel, Gladstone’s War and Peace is a wonderfully rich and humorous performance.

By Mattias Martens