The Soldier's Tale, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

A perfect deal with the Devil
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The Independent Culture

While Gounod's Faust rumbled away upstairs at Covent Garden last week, downstairs in the Linbury Studio a much snappier contract was being drawn up with the Devil. Stravinsky's masterpiece-in-miniature The Soldier's Tale was written to be performed off the back of a lorry, post-war Europe being short on funds as well as musical personnel in 1918. To its huge credit Will Tuckett's taut new staging, while expanding the dance element of the original and using every luxury the Linbury affords, retains that sense of raw pragmatism with biting effect.

While Gounod's Faust rumbled away upstairs at Covent Garden last week, downstairs in the Linbury Studio a much snappier contract was being drawn up with the Devil. Stravinsky's masterpiece-in-miniature The Soldier's Tale was written to be performed off the back of a lorry, post-war Europe being short on funds as well as musical personnel in 1918. To its huge credit Will Tuckett's taut new staging, while expanding the dance element of the original and using every luxury the Linbury affords, retains that sense of raw pragmatism with biting effect.

"Along a hot and dusty road," began the more familiar translation of Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz's libretto, too often recited in a tone more suited to Listen With Mother than a story about a chancer who tangos with Beelzebub. Tuckett's Tale gains an ambiguous edge by casting the narrator as a blustering Edwardian music hall MC (Will Kemp, on splendid form), repellently all-knowing yet living in fear that Adam Cooper's Soldier will find him out and demand a change in the plot.

Paul Griffiths's translation is spicier too, packed with tongue-in-cheek anachronisms and clipped, rhythmic rhymes. "It's nothing grand, not worth a spoon, and it's always out of tune," quips Cooper to the Devil's offer for his shabby violin - a symbol of his soul. And though there are times when words still get the upper hand in the narrative, the players' bounding physicality and Tuckett's vigorous direction make every conversation riveting to watch. Matthew Hart's Devil is a model of kinetic eloquence as he contorts his amazingly bendy body with an energy verging on manic. He drew gusts of laughter from the first-night crowd for his swift transformations from picture-book devil to drawling lounge lizard, and from little old lady to hairy-buttocked fiend. Who would have guessed that ballet dancers would possess such speaking voices? It's a tour de force all round.

Dancewise too there is lots to enjoy, with sly quotes from Diaghilev ballets and a gloriously tender duet for Cooper and Zenaida Yanowksy. And how clever of Tuckett to think of overlaying the parodied militarism of Stravinsky's opening theme with hints of a Trenches Tommy, scared out of his wits. Musically, Stravinsky's rhythmically devilish score gets a fair hearing from the band under Richard Bernas, though I'm prepared to bet later performances were tighter: you just can't do this stuff on two rehearsals.

Neil Austin's smoochy lighting and Lez Brotherston's design spectacularly transform the Linbury into a faded art-nouveau cabaret club. The candlelit café tables that seat part of the audience intensify the sense of sardonic intimacy that has always lain at the heart of this mock morality play. The joke is that the Soldier does get his soul back, but never learns his lesson, so loses it again. Tuckett's confident grasp of the score's nihilism is what clinches his show's success. No doubt it will return to the Linbury next season, but wouldn't it be a perfect little piece to tour?

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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