Behind the scenes of War and Peace
By Gob Squad
A couple of years ago, German theatre producer Matthias Lilienthal approached Gob Squad with a challenge. Having worked with the group for more than 10 years, he wanted to produce something new. But since he was about to head one of Germany’s most prestigious theatres, he added an extra requirement: the work MUST have a BIG title. Something that audiences would immediately recognise, something like Faust or King Lear.
Having worked as a collective for two decades on completely original happenings, performances and events, this was new for us. We usually take places and ideas as starting points for our work, rather than books or plays. How much would we actually have to honour the work which gave us our title? What expectations would this create for an audience?
Choosing War and Peace appealed to us on many levels. The sheer absurdity of making a theatre performance from such a huge and famous book put a smile on our faces: who would dare such an impossible thing?
We see a poetic quality in the attempt to fulfil an impossible task.
There is a naivety that flies in the face of the complex struggle of life, and reveals so much to us about the scale of humanity. In previous works like Revolution Now, Saving The World or Super Night Shot (performed a few years ago here in Melbourne) we plunged headlong into the impossible tasks we set ourselves, guided by our company motto of ‘Naïve Blind Faith’.
As we immersed ourselves into the world of War and Peace we quickly realized that to some extent Tolstoy himself was embracing the spirit of ‘Naive Blind Faith’. In an impressively rigorous and detailed way he attempts to understand connections between the circumstances of history and the actual fact of killing and violence. Bewildering and impossible as this turns out to be, it is the attempt to fulfil this task that reveals so much: and in Tolstoy’s case has had so much subsequent impact.
This epic jumps between high society Russia (Peace) and the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars (War). When it was written, these wars were already decades in the past, and Tolstoy bases his fiction on historical documents and figures who actually participated in the conflicts. His rendition, however, resists a dominant historical narrative or glorification: the head of Russia, Tsar Alexander, and Napoleon are mere ‘bit parts’ in the story.
Rather than trying to explain events with the benefit of hindsight, he traces causes and effects. Tolstoy paints a world where the intentions of people (whether they are strategies of war or feelings of love) manifest into the world in completely different and unexpected ways. It is a complex set of conditions that coincide, moving the wheels of history in Tolstoy’s a grand narrative: to explain and rationalise the violence of men.
The high society salons of St Petersburg and Moscow that feature throughout the book particularly caught our attention. Their privileged view of the world of politics, the rituals of status and power and their skewed perspective on what is happening on the battleground reflect something back to us of our contemporary position. In modern day Europe, plasma screens vie for our attention with a pot pourri of political gossip, horrific war stories and novelty entertainment.
On the very first day of rehearsal we came up with the idea of a ‘salon’ of distinguished guests as a springboard into various games, improvisations and tasks. Another fragment from early rehearsals that made the final cut is something that looks like a fashion show or the opening titles to a TV soap. There are so many characters in the book that this seemed a good way to introduce them, and the frame of a fashion show also asserts a play about value and power in a very contemporary way. These two building blocks emerged as the foundations for our approach to War and Peace.
Meanwhile, beyond our rehearsal room, the world intensifies in its political fragmentation, attempting to deal with the largest movement of populations since 1945. How can we make sense of this? Where should we get the information? Are we obliged to look at these horrific images of war, of massacre and beheadings? And if so, what should we do about it?
And perhaps most importantly of all, WHO do we mean by ‘WE’ when we say ‘we’ in these impossible questions? In the struggle for answers, ‘we’ invite ‘you’ to our table.
Enjoy the salon.