Review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

A musical adaptation of <em>War and Peace</em> could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage.

At first glance, the deliriously decadent, gleefully implausible concept of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 looks like something out of an unlikely-pitch handbook: a single strand of Tolstoy's Napeoleonic doorstopper, re-imagined as an interactive, dinner-theatre rock opera cabaret. Certainly Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 could be forgiven for resting on its conceptual laurels: the Siberian-bazaar décor (plenty of red velvet, intermittent icons) and itinerant, fur-clad musicians almost merit the ticket price. But, beneath (and at times in spite of) the production's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, Comet is one of the most gorgeously nuanced portrayals of passion running on either side of the Atlantic.

A musical adaptation of War and Peace could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage, allowing us a richly textured glimpse into the love lives of a few of War and Peace's main characters that still manages to suggest their story's cosmic significance. Focusing as it does on the love triangle between the vivacious Natasha (Phillipa Soo, heart-wrenchingly luminous, refusing to fall back on the emotional shorthand of the ingenue soprano), her absent fiance Prince Andrei (Blake DeLong), and the rakish, honey-voiced Anatole (Lucas Steele, treading the fine line between heartthrob and comic fop), Comet's storyline sidesteps the War half of Tolstoy's novel. Yet it is a testament to the strength of the performances, as well as to the darkly haunting quality of Dave Malloy's musical score, that Natasha's doomed passion for Anatole feels no less vital, no less profound, than the fate of the world being destroyed around them.

The lyrics – often taken wholesale from Tolstoy's novel – produce a curiously Brechtian, if at times dissonant, effect : in describing their own actions in such a seemingly detached manner - “Natasha crossed the room”, “Pierre looked up”, and so forth – our Moscow denizens become victims of emotional forces they cannot control, powerless witnesses to the downfall that no amount of “soothing irony,” as Natasha puts it, can prevent.

While a Tolstoy purist might complain about the number of side plots cut in the service of Natasha's story (Mary and Sonia, in particular, suffer from adaptation decay), Comet's supporting characters are compelling enough to demand our attention even when given relatively little to do. As Helene, Pierre's wife (as the helpful, patronymic-skirting lyrics frequently remind us), Anatole's sister, and self-proclaimed “slut”, Amber Gray melds cabaret-style showmanship and searing sensuality; her standout number, “Charming,” with which she pushes the already-vulnerable Natasha into her brother's arms is a masterpiece of feline manipulation. Grace Mclean, as Natasha's “old school” godmother Marya, exudes brassy exuberance; her throaty outrage at Natasha's betrayal is the closest we get to Weill-style cabaret. Blake Delong, too often offstage as Andrei, reappears as the marvelously vile Prince Bolkonsky, squaring off powerfully against his defiantly dutiful daughter Mary (Shaina Taub, a powerhouse of quiet emotion).

Yet the night's best performance belongs to by Brittain Ashford, as Natasha's stalwart cousin Sonya. Plainly dressed, simply coiffed, and given all the most painfully exposition-laden lines, Sonya has little to do for most of the play but watch from the sidelines as her cousin waltzes her way towards dishonor and disgrace. But Ashworth – her voice an uncanny, even unearthly, blend of folk melancholy and raw passion – makes her into Comet's unsung heroine: the dull wallflower whose stoic love for her cousin proves far more powerful, and far more lasting, than Anatole's hastily-flung affections.

Against the sheer power of the play itself, some of Comet's trendier trappings – the occasional interactive moment, the dinner served with the show, the post-performance musical acts – feel somewhat superfluous. Comet's brilliance lies not in its flair for spectacle, but in its honest, haunting look at the vagaries of passion, and the dazzling capacities of the human heart.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is playing At Kazino, West 13th Street, at Washington Street, West Village, New York until 1 September

The cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Photograph: Loren Wohl

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times