Sunday 10 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The War, or, A Pretty Stunning Piece of Theatre

When I arrived and bought my programme for this performance my heart sank for several reasons. Firstly at the discovery that the show was to last two and a half hours without an interval. Secondly at the fact that it was meshing a number of different texts together (principally Richard Aldington's World War One novel The Death of a Hero and Homer's Iliad) – an approach to scripting that I have seen go badly wrong on far too many occasions. How wrong I was. This is powerful, compelling theatre, and deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to be getting.

Perhaps people are put off by the fact that it's in Russian with surtitles. But you shouldn't be. This is one of those rare occasions when the language barrier is largely transcended. The stunning visuals, the central role played by music and the highly physical performances are crucial here, but the fact that the trenches and Troy are familiar stories also assists, as do the cast's occasional, impressive breakings into English.

The visual experience ranks up there with Theatre du Soleil a couple of years ago. Just watching this performance is a rich experience – use of aerials, of a small piano and a large chandelier as props, empty uniforms conjuring an army, the multiple uses of oars. The high point is probably the gas attack towards the conclusion but there's as much brilliance in many of the smaller moments. The way that certain scenes portray the family at home reliving the narrative of their deceased son's war as if they've stepped out of a Chekhov play is a particularly clever touch. A tiny thing like the knitting which seems bizarre to begin with develops poignant meaning by the conclusion.

Also key is the music. In advance, again, I was sceptical about the company's innovative “sound-drama” technique. Again, I was proved quite wrong. The ensemble are really musician-actors – everybody plays and sings and the work is a kind of hybrid theatre-opera. There are echoes of Kurt Weill and some of the repetitive word setting of somebody like Glass but Artyom Kim and Sergey Rodyukov's work here should absolutely not be dismissed as derivative. They weave those influences into a substantial whole.

Narrative so often a problem is also strong. I had my doubts during the opening scene where there's a lot of unsatisfying talk, but thereafter the piece is compellingly focused. The marriage of Aldington and Homer works to powerful effect. The key characters do develop the depth that I think is so crucial to successful theatre. The only place where things flag is in the epilogue where some judicious cutting would be in order, but I'm frankly a bit baffled by the claim of Michael Billington in The Guardian that he had little idea what was going on much of the time. There have been plenty of such shows at Festivals past but this emphatically is not one of them.

All of this would fall down were it not for the cast on stage. Again the programme doesn't indicate which roles the various members of the company play but it's a tremendous ensemble performance, with whoever was playing the lead role of George deserving of special mention.

Overall, I found this a fairly stunning exploration of the horrors of war. The successful marriage of so many elements into such a compelling whole is rare. One performance remains tomorrow. Not to be missed.

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