Gob Squad’s War and Peace playfully collages ideas of history, fiction and politics. It is accessible and joyful, while at the same time posing a strong challenge to its audience to identify and engage with their own privilege.
A Malthouse show within the Melbourne Festival, especially one titled War and Peace and performed by an internationally lauded company like Gob Squad, is set to attract a large audience. The question when seeing this show is how this opportunity will be utilized by the Malthouse and by Gob Squad in an incredibly fraught political landscape. An audience of War and Peace is answered with an extremely funny, captivating and relevant piece of social commentary that engages not only with the reality and liveness of the theatrical space, but with contemporary socio-political ideas.
From the moment the audience enters the foyer, Gob Squad situates them within a ‘salon’, a high society hothouse of privileged political discussion present within the novel War and Peace and reflective of St Petersburg and Moscow societies during the Napoleonic wars. Introducing audience members into the space with their titles and histories, keeping the house lights on during sections of the play and involving the audience interactively in the show (while still maintaining traditional audience seating and conventions) constantly reaffirms the audience’s own involvement in and relation to the ‘salon’ and through this, their own privilege. Within this space, Gob Squad stages relatable discussions of war, peace, conflict and nationalism with recourse to 21st century politics. By setting these discussions and questions within a staged ‘salon’, Gob Squad is acknowledging and affirming to a privileged theatregoing audience that the perspectives and ideas presented, while providing an attempt to make sense of a confusing world in a morally justifiable way, are still steeped in a Eurocentric, privileged worldview.
In War and Peace, the theatrical space is reinvented and redefined in an emulation of the way information and contemporary political ideas are communicated and discussed. Coffee-table conversation melts into Reality TV. Personal anecdote intertwines with fiction intertwines with history. Screens project live video of the performance, cat videos, the sky. A gauze curtained tent, central to the space, is a battle tent, backstage, head space – it is the place pre-action, a waiting area where ideas are formulated and discussed before being presented to the world. And in this mish-mosh, collage, kaleidoscope of the technological and the physically tangible, the audience sees a staged representation of their own reception of information and ideas. This ability to move fluidly between spatial configurations and conceptualisations is a testament to the set design by Romy Kießling and video design by Miles Chalcraft. The dynamic sound design (Jeff McGrory) is also used to great comic and political effect, drawing parallels between the historical and the contemporary and shaping tonal shifts between the fantastic and the ordinary.