Carry on Comrades

What's so funny about military service in the USSR? What connects the abstractions of music to the real world? The Brighton Festival has the answers
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The Independent Culture
The Maly Theatre of St Petersburg's comedy about military service in the former Soviet Union is a reviewer's nightmare. It's not easy to keep tabs on a dozen men with shaven heads, dressed identically in khaki, sporting a variety of patronyms, and speaking Russian faster than the surtitles can keep up. So it says something about the Maly's ability to reach out to audiences, compensating for the odd loss of nuance with sheer physical bravado, that Gaudeamus has become such a popular favourite since 1991, when this much-loved company first performed it in Britain.

Someone once called it "a kind of black Russian Carry on Sergeant", a description it's difficult to improve upon, though you'd be hard-pressed to guess at the knockabout content from its Latin title. Gaudeamus - "let us rejoice" - is a reference to the medieval drinking song that begins: "Let us rejoice then while we are young. After the pleasures of youth and the tiresomeness of old age, Earth will hold us."

Death and drinking are two kingpins of this loosely linked series of improvisations. "Don't get paralytic, boys," Captain Lysodor warns his men before their leave. Last time, three soldiers died: a bulldozer did for one, another electrocuted himself, and a third choked on his "vomitous chunder". But as every Soviet conscript knows: "When you feel blue, you stupid gits/ Vodka blows your mind to bits", so Lysodor's counsel is first ignored, then proves prophetic when a soldier from a rival battalion is killed in a drunken scrap.

If there's a flaw in Gaudeamus, it's that the final scenes never quite bring home the horror of this killing, its inevitability and its consequences. The climactic brawl is a case in point. A girder swings across the stage, suggesting both a game of skittles played with toy soldiers and the brawlers' wobbly vision. It's clever but not moving, and the scene feels strangely detached from what has gone before. Somewhere within Gaudeamus, a darker, more complex play is trying to get out, a fully-fledged tragicomedy in which Lysodor's "Don't get paralytic" resonates through following events like Monterone's curse through Rigoletto.

Enough complaints. It's churlish to carp when there's so much that's good here. If the Maly have one talent, it's to let the ridiculous, the sordid and the joyful co-exist without losing sight of any one element. Hence the finest sequence in which a lesson on how to stand to attention becomes a disco bop, which blends into a girl's fantasy (six squaddies with candles pirouetting round her bed), which becomes another ballet as the men clean the latrines. It's like hearing a good stand-up spin out a story way beyond the point where it seems possible. And it gives just an idea of why this show is punctuated with spontaneous applause.

n The Maly Theatre are now on tour. Details from Barclays Stage Partners (0171-221 7883)


This year's Brighton Festival assigned its new music quota to Saturday and to the parish church of St Nicholas. A lunchtime recital by William Howard, a pianist of stern technique and control, was matched by an early evening concert given by the Cambridge New Music Players. Although there was no "featured composer" as such, Sally Beamish, with a festival commission, came close to the role. Moreover, in her pre-concert talk about the genesis of her new piano sonata, she touched upon the thread linking both programmes: the relation between abstract music and the pressures of the external world.

That's a dichotomy felt throughout the history of music. Are its values autonomous or, as often thought, an index of our feelings writ large in sound and time? Although tending to the latter view, Beamish herself began the sonata as a study in abstract writing, the first movement working its way upwards through slow paragraphs of counterpoint, the second through dark and even slower paragraphs of chords. But the world kept breaking in. Icelandic drumming inspired the driving rhythms of the third movement. And with the fourth came an even starker vision: her musical answer, through a quietly transparent elegy, to the horrors of Dunblane.

In Howard's capable reading it stood freely, without the need for verbal explanation, while gaining an added dimension when we also knew the story. A programme note about Schubert's year of sorrow, 1823, had the same effect of heightening our response to the tragic tone of his A minor Sonata, D784. In contrast, the Old Testament tales behind the six Preludes and Fugues of the young Czech Pavel Novak did little more to enhance the listener's grasp of this well-ordered sequence of contrasts than knowing what the composer had for breakfast.

But with the Cambridge New Music Players and their conductor Paul Hoskins came further explorations of the theme. Julian Grant's Tournament of Shadows reflected his uneasy response to the history of Central Asia. Both Edward Dudley Hughes in Movements in Red and Jonathan Powell in Necronomic Fragments traced this tension to within the psyche; music, for Powell, is "a soundtrack of the subconscious" and, for Hughes, "the sensual surface of reality rendered susceptible to deeper streams of consciousness". Powell's reference to cinema was particularly of interest as a metaphor for the discursive, cross-cutting action of these pieces, Hughes's taste in chords at times reflecting Hollywood glitter, Powell keeping his harmonies more sharply etched.

The flautist Rowland Sutherland played Edison Denisov's coolly objective Pastorale and brief invention Bewegung. But it was left to the rich blend of Mahler and Jewish Klezmer in Adrian Jack's Zigzag to show how music can also be its own external subject. Apt quotation is itself an aspect of style, which Jack has in plenty. He also knows the trick of lucid scoring, beautifully realised through the impressive talent of this ensemble.