The cultural significance of The Soldier’s Tale, currently playing at the Old Vic, cannot be overestimated. It is the first European-Iraqi collaboration of its kind; a coming together of two nations that have been, and still are, embroiled in a conflict situation. The two communities have each provided a writer and a troupe of actors and musicians for the production. Matthew Amer attended the first night…
Sand covers the floor. A wall, which once would have hidden the rear of the stage, has a hole knocked out of it. Whether this was created by a bomb or some other act of violence, we cannot know. It is clear that the ravages of war have taken their toll, not just on the set, but on the Soldier due to go home on leave.
The tale is age-old and simple, though this version of the Faust myth was originally written in 1918. The Soldier is seduced by the devil in disguise; he swaps his violin for Old Nick’s book on how to amass incredible wealth. The violin, however, was the Soldier’s soul and without it his life is destroyed. He does have a chance to redeem himself, cheating the Devil at a game of cards, but as ever temptation is never far away.
Like a theatrical Noah’s Ark, nearly everything in The Soldier’s Tale comes in two by two. There are two Narrators, two Soldiers, two Devils and two writers – Abdulkareem Kasid and Rebecca Lenkiewicz – who have both reworked Stravinsky and Ramuz’s original tale for this production. The action weaves back and forth between the two parties, who both tell the same story. Lines are split between the English and Arabic casts, as one Narrator takes over from the other. Confusing though it may sound, the plot is never lost, nor are there any static moments of misplaced overlapping.
While the exact meaning of the Arabic may be lost on many in the audience, the actions of the cast are enough to convey the feeling, and Lenkiewicz’s rhyming couplets are never far away in proceedings.
West End veteran Julian Glover plays the English Narrator, a worldly voice of reason, telling the tale and rooting for the Soldier to make the right choices. His Iraqi counterpart, Falah Al Flayeh, who has appeared in over 50 plays at the National Theatre of Baghdad, presents a slightly more humorous side to his be-cardiganed Narrator.
Martin Marquez, last seen in the West End in the National Theatre’s Anything Goes, and Deaa Al Deen, both provide sinister Devils, adorned in military finery of the highest order. Ala’a Rasheed and Ciarán McMenamin, both dressed in the garb of a regular army grunt, play the Soldier wanting to beat temptation, but ultimately falling into the trap of human frailty.
The production also boasts two sets of musicians playing both Stravinsky’s original composition and new music provided by Ahmed Mukhtar.
The groundbreaking production is only being staged at the Old Vic for a remarkably short run, ending on Saturday 4 February.