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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How Tetsuya Mizuguchi reinvented video games with his love of synaesthesia

The Japanese designer on using music, movement, art and colour to create truly pioneering games.

It has taken six months and communicating across three different time zones to finally speak to Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Somehow, we’ve finally managed to meet on a gloriously sunny afternoon in Brighton. It’s the best chance I’ll have to ask him something I’ve always wanted to know. But I didn’t want to be too rude.

“How do I ask whether you’ve taken any psychedelics?”

“You’re asking about getting high? I’m pretty normal,” replies the pioneering Japanese video game designer. But not before a burst of laughter.

Mizuguchi’s background is unusual for a games industry professional. Having graduated in media aesthetics from Nihon University in Japan, it wasn’t until he saw a photo of Nasa’s VIEW virtual reality (VR) headset that he decided to enter the gaming world by joining Sega in 1990. And this was Sega before they unleashed Sonic the Hedgehog into the world.


Nasa VIEW headset. Photo: Nasa

“We had a long, long history of 2D over 100 years, including movies, TV, games. Everything was 2D and squared,” says Mizuguchi, on the challenges he faced in his early years.

He was tasked with creating one of the first powerful 3D games, Sega Rally, which upon its release in 1994 was unlike anything the industry had seen. It would later influence many other arcade racers for years to come, including Gran Turismo and the Colin McRae Rally series.

However, after one sequel in 1998, Mizuguchi headed for Zurich, where a music festival made him realise the new potential of powerful, modern games by combining visuals, music and player input into one reactive loop.

“I went to the party at night and it was a thousand people not dancing but moving,” he recalls. “The music changed, the sounds changed, the movement changed and the colours changed. I watched from the view and I remembered the word synaesthesia.”

From that moment, he focused primarily on music games, releasing Space Channel 5 (and its sequel), Rez, Lumines and Child of Eden. Despite the critical success of each title, Rez is the game that continues to live on, from its first release on the Dreamcast back in 2001 to a VR-enabled update last year known as Rez Infinite.

You play as a virus flying through the inside of a supercomputer tasked with saving an all-powerful AI named Eden, while fending off attacks from firewalls. The buttons you press, the enemies you attack and the environmental changes all feed into the multisensory game-playing experience.

Rez Infinite via GIPHY

Although it sounds like a bizarre idea for a video game, there’s no denying Rez is a moving, out-of-this-world experience. Mizuguchi reflects on whether anyone outside of Japan could have produced the game. “When I made Rez, we were talking about that all the time. It should be timeless, placeless, cultureless. So we asked what is the deep, deep point of the human being, what is our basic instinct?”

Mizuguchi is an innovative auteur in the same class as fellow game designers such as Hideo Kojima, Sid Meier and Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises.

Despite his love of music across many genres, and being a writer and producer for songs and videos (such as those featured in Rez’s spiritual successor Child of Eden), he doesn’t label himself as a musician or game designer, but a “technologist” and “futurist”.

“Technology makes people hunger,” he declares. “I think we are in a transition. I think in ten or 20 years people… won’t be so closed. VR is closed. It’s going to open soon, with talking and mixing with each other. I believe it’s going to get us back to being much more human.”


Tetsuya Mizuguchi talking about synaesthesia. Photo: Emad Ahmed

It’s quite an achievement for a designer to have transferred so fluidly and successfully to different gaming technologies over the years, from 2D to 3D, portable gaming, high definition visuals and now VR. It’s something he says is important for everyone in the industry. “All the time, I have a big influence from new technologies.”

Mizuguchi looks at the PSP handheld console I place on the table at the bustling hotel restaurant. “When I first got this, Ken Kutaragi [known as ‘The Father of the PlayStation’] said, ‘this is an interactive, 21st century Walkman’, and that was the first time I can bring games outside. Music like this, anytime, anywhere, any style.”

This gave him the idea to create Lumines, the music-based handheld puzzle game. “And with Kinect technology, what kind of game can you play? Oh, I want to play like a conductor.” Here, he’s referencing Child of Eden, which gives players the option to use the Xbox’s body-tracking camera instead of the standard button-bashing fare.

Mizuguchi is always thinking about creative design in this holistic way. “I love to combine many elements, the music, the storytelling, many things, as one architecture. I don’t care about the genre, I want to create a fresh new thing. Also, I want to break something,” he laughs.

I share with him a story of my first visit to London’s Tate Modern where I decided to stroll through one of the gift shops and amuse myself with the quirky ornaments being offered to the public. But as I was leaving, a stunning piece of artwork on the wall caught my eye. The Nineties vibe it was radiating was part of the appeal, so you can imagine my shock when I learned it was in fact painted in 1925. It was abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky's Swinging. I bought a print. It’s the same artist I later realise has inspired Mizuguchi all these years, after first seeing Kandinsky’s Red Square in Moscow.



Swinging and Red Square in Moscow by Kandinsky. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

“I love artists from a hundred years ago, I love their concepts,” he responds, explaining how he draws inspiration from them – so much so that he credits Kandinsky at the end of Rez Infinite.

“They have the same kind of image and I’m always thinking about the same dream. Now we have technology, so I believe we can create a much deeper experience,” he says. “It’s a good thing you mention Kandinsky. Maybe it’s a good thing games can be the first encounter with artists. Gaming is also a new art form.”

So what other ideas does the artist in front of me have at the moment?

“Many ideas!” he grins. There’s no doubt that Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s next dance with synaesthesia will be just as exhilarating as his last.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.