Marion Marples

The Soldier’s Tale at The Old Vic

Experience an unusual European-Iraqi collaboration at the Old Vic in Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale.

Soldier's Tale

The baroque columns of the proscenium arch contrast with the wide deep darkness of a desert dug-out; the seven musicians – violin, bass, cornet, clarinet, trombone, bassoon and percussion – double as soldiers on one side, the arabic players – oud, zither-like qanan and percussion – in traditional dress on the other.

The Soldier's Tale, originally with a French text, has been reworked to be performed in both English and Arabic. I'm not sure if the doggerel quality of the English version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz is deliberate and its hard to know about the Arabic – although we noticed that it seemed to get more laughs.

Composer Ahmed Mukhtar complements and expands Stravinsky's uncompromising spare jazz like themes with rhythmic dances. The original four characters are expanded to two Narrators, two Soldiers, and two Devils to recount a traditional Faustian fable of soul selling pacts with the devil leading inexorably to death.

Director Andrew Steggall made several visits to Baghdad to cast the actors and musicians. The ongoing war led to a wider exploration of a soldier's life and dreams, but the production did not really convey either the menace of the devils or the horror of war.

There were some longueurs about an hour in but the second half is more lively and Arabic narrator Falah Al Flayeh comes into his own, playing for laughs and filling the stage.

The story is skillfully carried along in the two languages, with gesture and action bringing understanding.

Inevitably when working with such different traditions at times the production still feels like 'work in progress' but it would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall when it travels to Paris, Berlin, New York and Baghdad itself.

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