The Theatreguide.London Review
The Soldier's Tale
Old Vic Theatre February 2006
The 1918 theatre-with-music piece by Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ferdinand Ramuz is revived in a significantly altered adaptation by The Motion Group, and the results are mixed.
The original is a Faustian fable of a soldier tricked by the devil into selling his soul, symbolised by a violin, for the secret of wealth. Discovering how bad a deal it was, he must trick the devil into taking back all his riches, cancelling the deal.
Director Andrew Steggall brought together two modern writers, the British Rebecca Lenkiewicz and the Iraqi Abdulkareem Kasid, to each adapt the text in their own languages, and presents both together onstage.
Two parallel casts - soldier, devil and narrator - perform the play in English and Arabic, playing each scene sequentially, overlappingly or simultaneously. And Stravinsky's musical interludes are balanced by passages of Iraqi-flavoured music by Ahmed Mukhtar.
Of the various elements, by far the most attractive and interesting is Stravinsky's music, a witty blend of military and folk elements set to a jazzy beat, and the biggest frustration of the evening is that there is relatively little of it.
A close second is Mukhtar's music, which is not only attractive in itself, but inventively set to complement and bounce off Stravinsky's.
Third is the production concept itself and the performances and direction. While the new version frequently strives too hard for contemporary relevance and ironies, and in the process loses some of the original's resonances, it is always interesting to watch, and director Steggall keeps the energy level high.
A very distant fourth is the new text.
I am not qualified to comment on Kasid's Arabic text except to note that there were very few moments when the Arabic speakers in the audience responded to something that the rest of us were missing.
But Lenkiewicz's English text is a drearily unimaginative series of bathetically predictable rhymed couplets, without a hint of invention, wit or characterisation. It is a pain to the ear.
Onstage, veteran actors Julian Glover and Falah al Fleyah as the two narrators give the piece much of its weight and gravitas, while Martin Marquez as the English-speaking devil invests his rhymed couplets with a vulgar energy that occasionally suggests Steven Berkoff.
Deaa al Deen as the other devil and Ciaran McMenamin and Ala'a Rasheed as the soldiers are fine without being special.
Ultimately this production may be of more significance sociologically - as the first free artistic collaboration between liberated Iraq and the West - than artistically.
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