Tolstoy before teatime

21st November 1997 at 00:00
WAR AND PEACE. Radio 4. Sundays. 2.30-3.30pm.

War and Peace, the Great Russian Novel, was published in 1866, the result of Tolstoy's first-hand experience of fighting in the Crimean War. Nearly 1,500 pages long, it is revered, daunting and largely unread.

By Sunday teatime we'll be one-fifth of the way through the radio version of this epic, which has been pared down to 10 hour-long episodes, and although the fuse is sizzling nicely the story hasn't exploded yet. Obviously at the start there is a huge amount of scene-setting and character-establishment to be done, so the printed "who's who" with the radio collection cassettes is very helpful in sorting out the counts, princes and princesses, and the Bolkonskys from the Bezuhovs and the Rostovs.

So far the men have emerged more clearly than the women - with the exception of poor, doomed Princess Lise (Tracy Ann Oberman), whose husband Andrei would rather go to war than stay with her while she goes through a frightening pregnancy. Andrei Bolkonsky (splendidly played by Gerard Murphy) seeks the simple clarity of battle, where it's just a matter of "acting well or badly, living or dying".

The sound effects tend to be odd, unsettling ricochets rather than full-blown cannon roars. And there's an affecting moment as Andrei, amid the chaos, thinks of the peaceful quiet of the mountains surrounding the battlefield. But he still persists in his stubborn pursuit of glory.

Perhaps the most dominating and sharply identified character so far is Andrei's father, Old Prince Bolkonsky, played by Richard Johnson. Johnson deploys a full range of snorts and yelps, but creates a character both autocratic and sufficiently loveable to make believable the devotion of his daughter, Maria (the excellent Abigail McKern).

Pierre Bezuhov (Simon Russell Beale) is so far a slightly shadowy figure. As he says, "I haven't the least idea of what to do with my life." His dissipation in St Petersburg is well done; there's a nerve-jangling scene where young bucks dare each other to drink a whole bottle of port while standing on a third-floor window-ledge without holding on - perfect radio drama.

Much of this War and Peace was recorded outside the studio in a Georgian town house in Soho, with microphones occasionally following the actors as they moved around the house. Certainly the ball scenes and the battles sound authentic, and the whole production plays cleverly to the natural strengths of radio. But however good, it's still not the original. Must get down to the library . . . must learn Russian . . .

Also available as cassettes in the BBC Collection (Pounds 30) from bookshops, or ring 01624 675137

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