The Soldier’s Tale

Igor Stravinsky
[original music] & Charles Ferdinand Ramuz [original text]
The Soldier’s Tale

Ahmed Mukhtar
[additional music]
Abdulkareem Kasid & Rebecca Lenkiewicz [additional and revised text]

Narrator – Falah al Flayeh
Narrator – Julian Glover
Devil – Deaa al Deen
Devil – Martin Marquez
Soldier – Ala’a Rasheed
Soldier – Ciaran McMenamin

Sattar Alsaadi (nay/percussion)
Henry Baldwin (percussion)
Alex Caldon (cornet)
Diego Conti (violin)
Rory Dempsey (double bass)
Hassan Falih (qanun)
Shakir Hassan (oud)
Claire Hawkes (clarinet)
Adam Mackenzie (bassoon)
Ahmed Muhktar (percussion/oud)
Miguel Tantos (trombone)
Robin O’Neill

Director – Andrew Steggall
Designer – Jon Bausor
Lighting – Paule Constable & Jon Clark
Sound – Christopher Shutt

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 February, 2006
Venue: Old Vic Theatre, London

For this version of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale”, stirred by the continuing conflict in Iraq, The Motion Group (Andrew Steggall in particular) brought together writers, actors and musicians from both Europe and Iraq to explore the common experience of soldiering. (I was minded of several events – the Christmas 1915 meeting of English and Germans in the trenches, for example.)

On offer is the jaunty, laconic folk-tale of a soldier, a magic violin, the devil and greed: Stravinsky’s 1918 “The Soldier’s Tale”. Now, in an adventurous hybrid, an Iraqi text sits side by side with an English version of Ramuz’s French original. Iraqi music likewise complements Stravinsky’s score.

In effect, the tale is told twice – concurrently. This transforms the rather detached original into something wider, deeper, more moving and more human, while voicing an exalted universality.

The curtain rises upon a memorable, evocative set. A thin coating of sand covers the floor. The terrain implies the Middle East – but could just as much depict a desert in the human heart. We could be anywhere – or everywhere. Left, the stage is dark hued – suggesting an interior wall and roof or rock and Flanders mud. The English musicians crowd here, resembling the German band in “Cabaret”. Front stage, a table and chair straddles a red patch – there’s blood on the sand. Higher up, much further back, an irregular roof arches the stage – with a trimming of white glass wool, cotton wool or, maybe, cloud. Right stage is the Iraqi domain – roofed and bare but for Mukhta’s traditional pouf half-way down and a table and chair in front on unblemished sand.

The lighting, too, is enthralling and visionary. As the curtain rises, the set is bright but fuzzy. Mirage-like, we see hazy, indistinct figures and artefacts. A pair of magic violins rise up and disappear – the English soldier’s, the Iraqi soldier’s.

Now the action begins. We hear from the English version – and Stravinsky’s seven-piece band comments. A similar portion in Iraqi follows, with comment from Mukhta’s qanun, ouds and percussion. All the while, the two soldiers mime or speak as appropriate.

Great care, ingenuity and inspiration went into juxtaposing these two soldiers. Often, they performed as if spiritually joined – as a living, wriggling and writhing human duality. At other times one soldier receded giving his counterpart the floor. Sometimes the lighting highlighted the soldier remaining, mid-stage; at others, the receding soldier was in focus.

Human individuality was present throughout. Narrators, soldiers and devils were never simple mirrors of each other. The two soldiers, especially, each lived their own lives, in their own style, making their own movements. There was no copying. Ala’a Rasheed danced twice – solos quite different in style. One involved a dignified circular tread, arms outstretched while sand trickled through his closed fists; in the other, he moved more spiritedly. Focused lighting caught his swirling, lithe, snake-like arms and open fingers arrestingly and exactly. Ciaran McMenamin, on the other hand, did not dance, but shared a whisky with Julian Glover.

And the music?

Robin O’Neill and his seven players caught the Stravinsky mode exactly – lightly pointing towards Kurt Weill as a likely inheritor. Alex Caldon’s cornet was sometimes brilliant, occasionally only just secure. Stravinsky’s diamond-like edge, sparkle and colour merged effortlessly and inevitably into the softer Arabic muse, whose thrumming was immediate and present yet enduringly close to the knowledge of eternity. Transition from West to East was less a contrast than an extension of the work’s scope and reach, moving into further realms of human experience – through folk tunes, timeless percussive rhythms and even the marching song that Sadam’s loudspeakers blared out over Baghdad.

I can’t help supposing how much this great human adventure and small masterpiece would have thrilled Luciano Berio.

  • The performance reviewed was one of several

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