Deaa Al Deen
Falah Al Flayeh
It had the potential to be fascinating. Using a company of European and Iraqi performers, Andrew Steggall’s the Motion Group reinterpreted the 1918 Stravinsky-Ramuz musical fable for a modern audience using a mixture of both English and Arabic. The piece promised to speak of the universality of story-telling and shed light on the current conflict in Iraq. The reality, however, never quite achieved these goals.
That’s not to say there weren’t things to enjoy in the Old Vic production, it’s just that the concept ultimately proved more interesting than the execution.
The Soldier’s Tale tells the story of a Faustian pact: a homebound soldier trades his cherished violin for a book that contains the secrets to infinite wealth. But, as is the way of these things, his newly acquired possession brings him nothing but trouble and loss.
The action unfolds bilingually: the three main roles, of soldier, devil and narrator, played by two actors each – one speaking Arabic, the other English. The constant switching from one language to the other meant that the drama unfolded sluggishly and the music failed to fully bind both halves together.
The Stravinsky-Ramuz narrative has been translated by the Iraqi poet Abdulkareem Kasid and the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz (whose previous work includes last year’s Shoreditch Madonna). The English sections felt somewhat forced, full of heavy-handed rhymes that proved rather distancing, especially when issued in Julian Glover’s clipped Jackonory tones. It’s impossible to say whether the Arabic portion suffered similarly, however the woman who was sitting next to me – who was fluent in both languages – informed me that the Arabic sections were not just direct translations but rather that they complimented and built upon the English. To fully appreciate this bilingual production, it seems – quite obviously I suppose – that helps to be bilingual oneself.
There are some strong performances on display, particularly from Julian Glover and Falah Al Flayeh, the two narrators, whose contrasting styles compliment each other. Jon Bausor’s sand-strewn set is effectively atmospheric and the music contains moments of subtle beauty. For all that, it remains difficult to grasp what this production was trying to achieve. The politics of the piece felt rather muddled; any notions of corruption were too vague too apply to the current situation in Iraq.
Though there were moments when the production conveyed the ambitious and well-intentioned yet ultimately unrealistic feel of a theatre studies A level project – and when the two soldiers, Ciaran McMenamin and Ala’a Rasheed, seemed to flounder under the weight of the complicated narrative – The Soldier’s Tale pulled itself together in the final half hour, building towards a dark and engaging finale.
It wasn’t quite enough to save a work that, for all its flaws, was clearly the result of a lot of time, thought and passion. Steggall’s production’s main failing is that it tries to do too much; still its motives are admirable and if The Soldier’s Tale paves the way for similarly ambitious creative collaborations it can only be a good thing.