The Soldier's Tale, Old Vic, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

When the curtain rises on a sand-and-rubble-strewn Old Vic stage, the first thing the audience sees is a band of musicians standing to attention, clad in First World War British Army uniform. It's a reminder that Igor Stravinsky's pioneering music-theatre fable was written and first performed in 1918.

By contrast, the soldier, or rather, in this bilingual production, soldiers of the title, wear the modern grunt's customary garb of T-shirt, baggy camouflage trousers and dog-tag.

That might be construed as a reminder that we are in the shadow of war now. Not that anybody in the Old Vic will have had trouble remembering that: Paul Steggall's production brings together British and Iraqi actors and musicians.

This is two stagings at once, one in English, one in Arabic. As well as two soldiers on their way home from the wars, you get two devils trying to tempt them, two narrators, and two sets of musicians - a chamber orchestra playing Stravinsky's raucously folksy score, and Iraqi players offering a more melancholy response.

Each part of the story is played out twice, once in each language - the two sets of dialogue chasing and interrupting one another, while the soldiers move across one another, occasionally imitating one another or interacting, their performances entwining.

As an exercise in contrasting styles this is striking and sometimes ingenious, but it is hard to see what is being revealed.

Perhaps some statement is intended about British involvement in Iraq - the programme cover, with its blindfolded soldier, seems to imply this, but I was at a loss to spot the relevance. Could the dual structure imply something about the eternally brutalising nature of soldiering? I can't, however, detect that in Stravinsky and Charles Ferdinand Ramuz's original.

The main effect of the staging's peculiar structure is to confuse the narrative and inflate a slender, witty, neatly turned hour-long piece into a dull and unwieldy two hours.

Steggall's direction is clever in purely mechanical terms, but seems to have little to do with the story.

The music is, however, lovely - Ahmed Mukhtar's Arabic additions woven deftly around the Stravinsky; if only the rest of the evening had shown such intelligence and tact.

To Saturday (0870 060 6628)

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