The Soldier's Tale, Old Vic, London

What the Devil is going on?
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The Independent Culture

The greatest stories we have to tell are about stories themselves. That was the parable of The Soldier's Tale, the main event in a satisfyingly odd evening. Part concert, part miracle play, part ballet, the performance confounded the expectations of the Old Vic audience at every step. For that alone, the artistic team deserves praise.

The greatest stories we have to tell are about stories themselves. That was the parable of The Soldier's Tale, the main event in a satisfyingly odd evening. Part concert, part miracle play, part ballet, the performance confounded the expectations of the Old Vic audience at every step. For that alone, the artistic team deserves praise.

The evening's entertainment, split into two parts, initially took the form of a chamber concert. A 12-piece band played Stravinsky's reworked 1920 Concertino for Violin, Cello and 10 Wind Instruments, followed by his 1923 Octet for Wind Instruments. For those in the audience not knowing quite what to expect of a show that had been billed as a one-night drama special with Hollywood talent involved, listening to half an hour of Stravinsky's sometimes discordant, sometimes soaring harmonies must have come as a shock. Indeed, the two loud Americans who left halfway through the octet had the audience spluttering into their interval G&Ts.

It was only after the break that the first half began to make sense. When Jeremy Irons, as the Narrator, made his way on stage, took his seat at his writing desk and began to tell the story of the Soldier, Hugh Dancy, returning home from war, the orchestra, too, began to emerge from the wings. They came out, one by one, warming up their instruments while the Narrator warmed up his tale, finally grouping in the middle of the stage. The action then took place around and through the orchestra, with the conductor, double-bass-player and lead violinist all integral to the drama.

In that way, the stagecraft of the director, Andrew Steggall, offered the chance to see those liminal spaces between creative drive and finished project. The recital of the first half, with its fractured, modernist sensibilities, allowed the audience to experience that finished project, which was stripped bare in the second half to show the puppeteer's strings. How such self-consciousness affected the drama of The Soldier's Tale is harder to fathom.

The tale is simple enough. The Soldier, returning home from war eager to see his family and sweetheart, is accosted by a stranger - a wonderful Devil played by Nicholas le Provost - who offers him the chance to swap his violin for a ledger book that will make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But, of course, as he discovers, deals with the Devil always have a harsh price. The translated libretto is wonderful and, in the accomplished deliveries of Irons and Dancy, extremely funny. That makes the Soldier's fate even harder to bear, when the Devil finally takes him away and nobody says a thing.

The Soldier's Tale is a strange morality play, which seems on the surface not to jibe particularly well with Stravinsky's artistic sensibilities, but it has a clear resonance. An everyman figure trades his violin for a ledger book; innocence is lost and may not be regained. As a metaphor for war-ravaged 1918 Europe, it is acute.

The director, Steggall, and his Motion Group are taking a version of the play to Baghdad next October, where they hope to stage a parallel Civilian's Tale with a half-Western, half-Iraqi cast. The Baghdad project is a bold one, but it is easy to see how this extraordinary musical drama might be a fecund vehicle for the issues arising from post-war Iraq.

With its thoughtful staging, stunning music and top-notch cast, The Soldier's Tale could attract a full house every night for weeks on end. So it was a great shame that it had just the one stop in Britain.

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