The Soldier's Tale

Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, in a new version by Abdulkareem Kasid and Rebecca Lenkiewicz

The Old Vic

(2006)

Review by Philip Fisher

Much of the pleasure to be derived from this new version of The Soldier's Tale, translated to a new war, is visceral. This is a musical composition attached to a parable, given fresh meaning by the war in Iraq; and beautifully staged.

The Soldier's Tale provides a highly unusual evening's entertainment. It is entirely bilingual and such is the strength of the musical accompaniments that it could be argued that it is, in fact, quadrilingual.

The story is simple. A soldier travelling home from the Great War meets up with the Devil and enters into a Mephistophelean pact whereby he gives up his violin (and soul) for a book that will make him wealthy (but unhappy).

Realising what he has lost, he sees a chance of redemption by waking and thereby marrying a permanently sleeping princess. It almost works but prior to the highly dramatic ending, he begins to slip back into the old, greedy ways. Simple fairytale stuff with a strong moral base.

Young director Andrew Steggall decided to stage the play in Iraq and after several visits to the war zone and a single performance for charity, has now achieved his ambitious goal of a professional production on a large stage.

Everything is duplicated with British and Arabic versions provided almost simultaneously without translation, allied to music from each culture.

First, we meet two narrators, Julian Glover pounding out Kiplingesque rhyming couplets in time with Stravinsky's western music while the more flamboyant Falah al Flayeh speaks in classical Arabic, apparently with a strong Iraqi accent.

A band of six dressed as Tommies plays the jazz-based Stravinsky, while Ahmed Mukhtar's exotic eastern music is played by three Bedouins on Oud, Qanun and Nay. Eventually, for the Iraqi music at least, the bands begin to bleed into one another and, in particular, Diego Conti on violin does double duty.

The stories unfold as the soldiers (Ciarán McMenamin and Ala'a Rasheed) from opposing camps also begin to swap experiences. They share a single violin and a single life, run ragged by dual devils, Martin Marquez and Deaa al Deen.

With John Bausor's set a testament to the destruction of a country, enhanced by Paule Constable and Jon Clark's tremendous lighting, The Soldier's Tale is an intoxicating experience that makes its point that the ordinary squaddies on both sides of any war are pretty much interchangeable.

The plot may lack depth but Rebecca Lenkiewicz' translation is both robust and witty. She is helped by a natural gift as a rhymester that means no duds at all and such gems as adagio/Joe DiMaggio.

The Soldier's Tale is an strange but important production and well worth a trip to The Old Vic.