24 October 2016


Melbourne Festival
War and Peace 
Gob Squad
19 October 2016
Merlyn Theatre
to 20 October 2016

War and Peace in Berlin. Photo by David Baltzer

War and Peace: I know people who've read it. Only about 20 members of the audience had read it. I've thought about reading it. Gob Squad's production hasn't got me any closer.

Gob Squad were last in Melbourne in 2012 at the Melbourne Festival with the their remarkable co-production with Campo Before Your Very Eyes. Formed in 1994, the seven-member company are based in Berlin and say that they work "where theatre meets art, media and read life".

Gob Squad

War and Peace doesn't try to explain Tolstoy's 1869 novel, about Russia during the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1812. They know that it's something that you need to experience for yourself in order to understand it – which might well be the point of Tolstoy's novel about war.

With three screens, a table set with delicate snacks and wine, and a gazebo (or war tent) that looks like it belongs in a backyard wedding, the show begins as the audience trickle in and the performers – Tatiana Saphir, Sharon Smith, Bastian Trost and Simon, who are dressed in beige-gold 19th century frocks without skirts, contemporary chunky-soled boots and supportive tights – meet and introduce members of the audience from the stage.

Three willing audience members remain to take part in an on-stage salon where they talk non-confrontational politics and art. Our three were Pier CathewIain Grandage and Sarah (who was reviewing and I'll link it here as soon as I find it). The salon members talk with the performers and sections of each chat are broadcast on the screens, while the others are kept secret.

Watching people think on the spot is fascinating, but the conversations are controlled enough by the performers to be easily forgotten.

As the performance develops away from the salon, the likeable ensemble get deeper into the ideas of the novel by becoming more ridiculously flippant, like Tolstoy's history of dance with a rainbow ribbon. As they can't begin to understand living in world always at war, they explore the ideas of identifying with something – anything or anyone – in the book.

They get closer to being reflective when they talk about their grandparents who lived through the Second World War, but then pull further away because it still doesn't get close to understanding. Maybe a fashion parade of characters is more respectful than trying to reflect on the magnitude of War and Peace.

Being in the theatre with Gob Squad is an absolute pleasure – the parts that make up War an Peace are delightfully funny – but I don't think that's what they are trying to do. Or perhaps the sum of the parts isn't meant to be stronger as a whole. Perhaps I need to read War and Peace.

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