MANY people have tackled Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth novel War and Peace in theatre form. Many have failed.

Perhaps the best way to adapt the classic book is to take an alternative route, one more conducive to the exploration of the profound ideas about humanity and conflict witnessed in Tolstoy’s work. Performance group Gob Squad may have the answer, although they insist that their version of War and Peace provides no concrete solutions to any universal themes.

Set during the 1812 French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, the novel often resembles more of a philosophical monologue than a structured plot. In this sense, a group discussion seems a fitting way to go about analysing it.

At least that’s the viewpoint of Gob Squad members Sharon Smith and Simon Will. They spoke to EDWIN GILSON about their unique spin on a timeless text.

Members of the audience are encouraged to move beyond their roles as “passive spectators” in this production. How, exactly?

Sharon: The situation of the evening is that we are in a salon in St Petersburg in which the novel begins. A few of the audience get invited to sit at our table – the top table in the salon. They then stay with us throughout the show and intermittently chat with us about all sorts of things, but primarily about war, peace, and our relationship with those concepts.

Simon: We try and approach the subject matter in a very everyday sense. We’re not seeking experts.

Sharon: It’s quite nice if we manage to get an array of people at the table. You don’t want everyone to agree. It’s always scary to head out into the venue foyer to seek out participants before the show.

Does the production merge the novel’s plot with the performers’ own experiences of, and thoughts about, conflict?

Simon: The novel is a springboard for our performance, which is only 100 minutes whereas the novel is an eternity. As the Napoleonic war goes on in the novel, the proximity of war is coming closer and closer to the realm of peace. In a light but also profound way, we encourage those of us who have never experienced conflict first-hand to think about how we perceive it from the perspective of peace.

How do you make that threat of conflict vivid to the audience?

Sharon: One of the things most writers say when they talk about war is that the reality of it is impossible to imagine. We don’t ask our audience to imagine what it would be like to be in a conflict itself, it’s more about how much we empathise with various historical events and figures, whether they are Napoleon or Theresa May. One of the big questions is whether we feel obliged to look at images of war. How do we cope with being so close to something so awful that we can almost touch it?

Can it be daunting to dissect massive questions like “is it possible to live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world”? Where do you start?

Sharon: We like to set ourselves impossible tasks. It’s about asking real questions without necessarily finding one single answer. That question is borrowed from the novel, but it seems like a very pertinent question now.

Gob Squad: War and Peace, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, Brighton, February 9, 7.30pm, £12, for tickets and more information call 01273 678822 or visit