Review: A Soldier's Tale ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Review: A Soldier's Tale

The Soldier's Tale by Igor Stravinsky, adapted by Simon Stone, directed by Michael Robinson, conducted by Fabian Russell. Lighting design by Kerry Ireland, set design by Michael Robinson, sound by Richard Buxton. Actors: Frank Gallacher, Bonnie Paskas, David Whitely and Mark Winter; musicians: Zoe Black, Frank Celata, Tristram Williams, Robert Cossom, Kieran Conrau, Jill Griffiths and Adam Mikulicz. The Hayloft Project @ the Abbotsford Convent until May 10.

The Soldier's Tale is a fascinating adaptation, which - in what is becoming a hallmark of Hayloft's work - takes the original work and unobstrusively brings its aesthetic into the 21st century. The Hayloft Project's productions are accumulating into an intriguing oeuvre: there is most certainly a serious investigation occurring here, one which has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with formal inquiry.

The clue here is the modernity of their aesthetic choices, which for all their period dress attain a performative immediacy and elan that remains wholly of the present. When Igor Stravinsky premiered The Soldier's Tale in Switzerland in 1918, it was indeed topical: Europe was still in the throes of the mechanised carnage of World War 1. The libretto, a conflation of a couple of Russian folk tales about encounters between a soldier and the Devil, was put together by the Swiss poet and novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz.

It was perhaps the first of a form that became known as "mixed media" work, incorporating dance, music, design and theatre. Despite that, The Soldier's Tale is mostly performed as a musical sequence. Last week, The Hayloft Project, with an adaptation by Simon Stone directed by Michael Robinson, gave us a rare chance to experience it as a work of theatre, with Stravinsky's score performed by musicians from The Orchestra Project, a loose group of musicians culled from Australia's leading ensembles and orchestras.

Stone has vamped up the original libretto, bringing the realities of wartime into the foreground and removing any sense of romantic pastoral: for example, where the original opens with the soldier sitting by a stream, Hayloft's version opens in a disreputable 19th century tavern strewn with bottles and wooden chests and buckets, lit as if by candlelight. But here the romantic glow reveals an unromanticised poverty.

Three performers are on stage already - the barman/narrator (Frank Gallacher), who is washing tin cups in a bowl of grimy water; the Devil, who is playing solitaire (David Whitely); and a woman (Bonnie Paskas) who is on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. The colours are warm, highlighting the wood and hessian tones of the set and the instruments of the ensemble, who are standing mid-stage to the left, dressed in vaguely 19th century clothes.

The performance begins with the sounds of artillery which is getting nearer and nearer, until at last one shell is so close the three performers flinch. Then someone is hammering on the door, and in stumbles the Soldier (Mark Winter) in a state of hysteria and shock. He tells the barman that he was marching with a friend who was hit and killed with a shell. When he at last wipes the blood from his face, he crumples into a foetal position, and for the rest of the night gives what looks like an almost clinically accurate performance of a soldier who is suffering from shell-shock (or, as it is known these days, "combat stress reaction").

This sets the tone for the performance, which has an air of nightmare or hallucination. It's the tale of a Faustian bargain - the Devil, whom Whitely plays with an air of subtle, snake-like menace, persuades the Soldier to give up his grandfather's violin in exchange for a book in which the Soldier's future is written. In one of the more poignant moments, the Soldier confesses he can't read; when the Devil suggests that he accompany him to his house for three days, where in return for being taught how to play the violin, he will show the Soldier how to read his book.

After the three days are up, the Soldier returns home, only to find that his appearance causes terror among his friends and relations, who treat him as if he were a ghost. When he sees his fiancee married and nursing children, he understands that he has been away for three years, not three days, and that his former life - and his soul - is lost to him. Eventually, however, he outwits the Devil, wins a Princess and finds happiness - but the the deal is that he can never go back. As always in these stories, he breaks the magical ban, and returns to his village to visit his mother: and the Devil, triumphant at last, claims his soul.

As presented here, it's a stark, resonant and ultimately mysterious tale. The action is punctuated by Stravinsky's music, so focus shifts from music to performance and back again, giving a sense of complementary autonomy to both elements in what is a very difficult balance. Under Fabian Russell's conducting, Stravinsky's score is spectacular, enriched with motifs from jazz, folk music and traditional dances, and here it's performed with exemplary clarity.

There are many beautiful moments in this production, which features four very strong performances from the actors: but perhaps the most surprising is the dance, performed by Paskas (whom I later found out performs with Chunky Move). Up to this moment, Paskas has been the image of a submissive, modest woman, in the background on her hands and knees; and then she explodes into this slow, strangely disturbing tango, in which the soldier is passive, even sometimes overwhelmed by the woman's sensuality. She begins with snake-like movements that suddenly foreground the picture of Adam and Eve on the back wall of the stage, at once vulnerable, potent, joyous and damaged.

The Soldier's Tale doesn't give us a satisfyingly dramatic arc of action, as in, say, a play by Chekhov; rather, the story begins, continues in an episodic fashion, and then it finishes. It follows the naive logic of oral narrative or dream, which has very little to do with psychological continuity or any sense of realism; folk tales, for example, tend to begin the middle, rehearse a number of recognisable tropes (for example, the magical ban) and then may end abruptly.

In this case, the episodic structure highlights the production's hallucinatory air: it is almost as if, when the soldier is killed and claimed by the devil at the end, the whole story has been a nightmare dreamt on the brink of his death, as if the Soldier was actually killed in the first moments of the show. This sense of dislocation is intensified by Winters' remarkable performance of a shell-shocked soldier; he never, for instance, changes out of his bloodstained, ragged uniform, as if the trauma has only just happened to him.

It's this surreal tinge that for me lends the production its particular power and resonance. When I went to see it, I was in the middle of reading Michael Herr's classic book about the Vietnam War, Dispatches, one of the best books about soldiers in war that I have read. (I'm reading it again because the parallels with Iraq now are illuminating, if depressing). For all the differences between Stravinsky's chamber work and Herr's nakedly evocative, strung-out 1960s prose, the two works rhyme painfully in a nakedly honest evocation of the irreversible damage of war.

Picture: Mark Winter and Bonnie Paskas in The Soldier's Tale.


Alice said...

It is as if you saw an entirely different show to me. It is as if you had nothing to say about the show except to recount the plot. As if the only reason it resonated for you was that you were reading a book that had some vague connection to it because both are in some way about war. As if your apparent need to be the standard bearer of those young people who just might have their finger on the pulse blinds you to any sense of rigour. As if all you want (under the guise of blogger/reviewer/critic) is to be the one to name the zeitgeist.
I'm sorry, Little Alison, this production of A Soldier's Tale just wasn't very good. It was not in any way daring, investigative, or theatrically interesting. The makers got off on the wrong foot by attempting to psychologise what is essentially a parable. The meaning, charm and power of a piece like this must be found in its folk tale naiveté not in pointless post-Freudian spin. It is a cautionary tale not a character study. It is figurative not literal. It is metaphorical. The Hayloft Project simply missed the point. It seems that you did too.

TimT said...

I liked it! Happy to have missed the point!

TimT said...

1. ... this production of A Soldier's Tale just wasn't very good. It was not in any way daring, investigative, or theatrically interesting.

2. The makers got off on the wrong foot by attempting to psychologise what is essentially a parable. The meaning, charm and power of a piece like this must be found in its folk tale naiveté, not in pointless post-Freudian spin.

Um, how can a show be daring and investigative and at the same time follow a pre-ordained theatrical interpretation?

Alice said...

You do seem to enjoy missing the point, don't you? Please re-read both Alison's review and my comment. If you still don't understand then all I can offer you is my sympathy. Though an answer to your question might be, "very easily." Use your imagination.

TimT said...

You seem a little hostile, Alice.

Perhaps you should re-read your comment and offer an explanation as to why those two quotes I posted above are not in direct contradiction with one another. :)

Alice said...

Do you mean to say that Castellucci, Kosky or Angela Carter are not daring and investigative in their approach to old tales, stock characters, and the figurative?
Tim T., I understand what you mean but I think you have the wrong end of the stick. Consider Chaucer, first, and then move on from there. Or perhaps have a look at a few Ancient Greek plays and modern interpretations.
Adherence to form of folk tale does not in any way negate an investigative or daring bent.
One need only understand the form before breaking from it – I do not think Hayloft did this in this particular production.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Alice - you do seem a little hostile. Is disagreement a proper basis for hostility? I didn't offend your mother somehow?

I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the show, but I did, and for the reasons I said in the review, which you seem to have read rather hurriedly. Certainly, if your observations of the show are as accurate as those about my review, you're the one on the wrong foot.

For instance, I spent precisely two paragraphs describing the story. There are more than two paragraphs in my review; the others briefly look at the piece's history and context, glance at the music and (mainly, because this is what most interests me) talk about the performances, design, lighting, and what - I believed - the effects of these were. It seems perfectly logical that a music theatre piece about war - with the appropriate sound effects underlining its emphasis - should make me make a connection to "some book" I happen to be reading that is also about war, moreover, in a time when war is very much about. You clearly didn't read what I said about the naivety of folk tales, and why this quality gave the piece a certain nightmarish air that I found haunting and appropriate. It might not work for everybody, but it worked for me.

Really, you think Stravinsky isn't post-Freudian? Freud was born in 1856 and died in 1939, and his first significant works were published in around 1899. Stravinsky was born in 1882 and died in 1971: it's absurd to argue that he or his librettist weren't aware of Freud. Stravinsky was a significant part of the modernity that Freud also defined: to think of this work as merely a charming folk fable seems a little ingenuous, frankly.

I'm glad you liked it, Tim!

Alison Croggon said...

Whoops - rereading the review, I realised that somehow I edited out director Michael Robinson and adaptor Simon Stone (they were there in an earlier draft). Now restored, with apologies...

Ben Ellis said...

Alice, Carter wore her post-Freudian rags with pride. What on earth are you going on about? Did less of a reliance on story events lead to a failure of the piece to create the intended experience for you - or do you simply disagree with what you believe the intended experience is? One's a craft issue, the other's moving towards ideology. (After all, we've all seen highly accomplished work that leaves us cold or angry - doesn't mean it was crap; it does mean that we require something more than intellectual cowardice to contend with it.)

I think you've used a disagreement over your response to this work as an ill-considered excuse to write something akin to anonymous hate mail. "Little Alison"? From whence comes this knowledge of Ms Croggon's stature? Perhaps you could separate the impulses and write with a bit more consideration.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ben - yes, you can't actually get more post-Freudian fairytale than Carter. To be fair to Alice, "Little Alison" is one of my blogger personae.

TimT said...

I was thinking last night about whether Stravinsky meant the History to be read in a post-Freudian sense. It's an interesting assertion, though there's precious little evidence of anything overtly Freudian in Stravinsky's other work - even his opera, Oedipus Rex, which is written in a consciously neo-classical style, a revisioning of the Greek tragedy. Possibly the closest he comes, musically, to a kind of Freudianism is in the Rite of Spring. On the other hand, he was also an extremely allusive artist, and worked with a number of other creative geniuses who may have been influenced by Freud. Who knows? I think the History probably does suggest a Freudian interpretation, in the same way as it touches upon other things of the period - tangos, marches, jazz, etc.

On reflection the crude suggestion in this production that it was all a hallucination by the Soldier was probably the worst part of the show - hallucination/dream sequences have become something of a cliche in modern art, an excuse for fantasy and a way for the director/producer/writer to 'explain' an incongrous or seemingly random series of events without actually understanding them. That being said, I still find it rather prescriptive to say that the show should never be directed or produced in this way. I don't think parables, folk stories, and the Freudian surrealistic narrative are as irreconcilable as Alice seems to suggest they are.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tim - There wasn't any overt suggestion in the show that it was "all a dream", actually; it was just there as a possibility, a suggestion really. Maybe the strongest suggestion of return to the beginning is actually in the music, in the finale's reprise of Stravinsky's opening March.

I'd be very leery of suggesting that Stravinsky was Freudian. What seems to me unarguable is that he comes out of a millieu, that of intellectual Europe in the early 1900s, in which Freud figured very prominently, and which shaped 20th century western culture. Critics have argued that Le Sacre du Printemps (completed in 1913, well before The Soldier's Tale) has clear connections to Freud's ideas about totemism, for instance; whether this is conscious borrowing or not, and it doesn't seem unlikely that it is, it all comes out of the same soup.

And you're quite right: fairy and folk tales have been an absolute staple of much psychoanalytic theory (Bruno Bettelheim only being the most obvious example).

Alison Croggon said...

...and thinking over some of Freud's writings, he referred to fairytales all the way through The Interpretation of Dreams. And in his analyses...

TimT said...

Yes, I'd agree that there were just hints in the production as to the possibility that the show was a dream/hallucination/deathbed fantasy. In that respect it was probably quite respectful of the mode in which Stravinsky originally conceived the work - allusive and playful, rather than blatantly Freudian. That being said, modern audiences must be much more complacent about the dream/hallucination plot than early 20th century audiences would have been - thanks to the all-pervasive influence of surrealism.

Alice said...

My apologies. Perhaps my comments were ill considered. Perhaps I am the Devil. Or his advocate.

It was the “pinning-down” of the play, to a naturalistic and psychologically coherent narrative, that I took issue with. To my mind the text itself cannot support such naturalistic playing. It is heightened story-telling and would have benefited from a greater sense of this. The few moments that I felt it did hit the mark were when David Whitely slipped into high farce, as he did when his Devil began to vomit. (Though in those moments I think he was left with a little egg on his face because not much else in the play supported this style). This is what I mean when I say it lacked daring.

The whole world of A Soldier’s Tale is nightmare, or faerie, and to endeavour to make the soldier’s plight psychologically explicable (by asserting that it is only the soldier’s nightmare/hallucination/delusion that we are privy to) is to undermine the entire purpose and resonance of the text. Everything is nightmare. Everything represents, symbolises something else. Yes, as in dream, and yes, as in Jung. But ideas of this kind pre-figure such explanation. They are greater and deeper than this.

The Oedipus myth, for example, is not as simple a tale as the common understanding of modern psychology would have us believe. Oedipus himself is surely a more complex, and yet elusive character. His story offers and threatens us with more, and is therefore more representative of aspects of self or society than the sexual.

Of course Stravinsky and Ramuz and Carter are chronologically post-Freudian. Of course they understood and used parts of that movement. But they understood that Freud did not come first. That his explanations, the schools of psychological thought that then followed, and the ways in which we commonly understand those explanations now, are not always enough in literature. The symbols and figures in this play hint at more, they tantalise us and perhaps could even lead us down the path into their world. Because their world is not ours. It is the other. Or, it is ours as we feel and fear it to be, not as we ‘know’ it to be.

I think this production dumbed-down a play that could possibly offer more. The ideas behind it were simplified and hence, the performances/direction filled the void that was left with ‘psychology’, which in turn, gave me a play that was without possibility and meant nothing more than what I was fed. This is what I mean when I say that it lacked investigation.

Alison Croggon said...

Alice, thanks for explaining some of your thoughts. I'm still confused, though: anyone who reads Freud understands how great a debt he owes to artists, especially to writers, since he acknowledges it so openly (nor is his use of the Oedipus myth exactly straightforward or simple). In fact his speculations (for that is what they are) have more respect for the literary autonomy of those works that inspired him than do many of his followers. And he was - and is - admired in German as much for his literary style as for his ideas, which is perhaps a bit hard to imagine from the translations.

I imagine that literary aspect of his work would have been well known in Stravinsky's day, when those ideas were still new, especially as he inspired so many artists of the time. As Tim says, post Duchamp and Breton, it's hard to imagine back to what it must have been like then - a time of total social cataclysm - the Bolshevik Revolution, the First World War - and intellectual revolution.

But to get specific - I'm at a bit of a loss to know what you mean by "naturalistic playing". Where? I can't think of any point where the piece even approached naturalism. There was a fair bit of (I suppose) expressionistic realism there, but it was a heightened theatricality that used, for example, rhyming verse (quite well, I thought, too), and simple things like using chairs to mean a carriage as the Devil flies them through the air, and of course there was music and a band on stage all the time. And even a dance. And I really don't know what you mean by "dumbing down". It seemed to me in a way a very straightforward telling (in other ways, quite a complex telling) of what is a simple - but resonant - tale. The resonance was left to the audience, I didn't catch any vexatious explanation, and I'm sure I was listening all the time. Which ideas in particular did you think were simplified?

lucky T said...

Well Alice has her reasons and A.C. and Tim T have their own. Neither convince me.
The most telling thing for me was when the show had just finished I heard a member of the audience behind me say "What was all that about?"
If you cant even get that across to Joe public then what are you doing? How can you make the Faust story so grey as to make it impossible to follow. I spoke to this woman afterwards who said she held on for the first scene. And then totally switched off. Her story was backed up by others around her who felt the same way.

THe lowlight for me came during the dance. I thought it to be the most appallingly obvious use of movement. Why was dance only used to simulate a sex scene? Boring!!
Surely the imaginations of the creators can stretch to more than the tawdry scintillation of the middle age audience?
And though I realise Mark Winters (th soldier) struggled valiantly to dance in a pair of army boots (quite near impossible) it would have helped if the dancer could act.

I must agree with Alice when she says
"The few moments that I felt it did hit the mark were when David Whitely slipped into high farce, as he did when his Devil began to vomit".
But the fact that such a lame gag was memorable above the rest of the play is even more fightening than the fact that Alice and I enjoyed it in the first place.

THe narrator (Frank Gallacher) was amazing but was so underused as to render him unnesecarry. This is a crying shame.

Given dramaturg Simon Stone rewrote the piece, it's amazing how much silence he left- perhaps he ought to consider spending more time on the process of script developement next time he considers tackling someone elses work. Perhaps working with an experienced writer or dramaturg is not a terrible idea. I didnt find the prolonged silences eery or haunting. I found them bloody dull.
As I did most of the play.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm kind of surprised at the vitriol of these comments...and puzzled by the fact they they seem to be resolutely ignoring the fact that this piece is music theatre, moreover, music theatre written by one of the most controversial modernist composers of his time. Stravinsky has never exactly had a comfortable relationship with "Joe Public" (whoever he or she is - how you can generalise about audiences always beats me) - ever heard of Rite of Spring? - and perhaps he's giggling in his grave now. I don't know.

Some strange things here. Was the dance really just used to simulate a sex scene? Dance isn't necessarily representative, and I didn't think this was representative dance; although it was a kind of tango, and tango is all about sex, that wasn't all that was going on by any means. And what prolonged silences? I didn't notice them - perhaps something else was going on. And what exactly was wrong with the writing? I've seen far worse by so-called "professional" writers. Whether it was boring or not is your call. Perhaps you should learn how to listen to music.

Mainly, I'm surprised that a piece like this has produced such anger. It was beautifully performed by both musicians and actors, and is itself a really interesting work which, whether it was successfully realised or not, repaid attention. I can't help wondering why all these very contradictory criticisms - it's too naturalistic and easy to understand, or it's so weird you can't understand it at all - are all directed at the company that produced the work. Is there some other agenda at work that I'm not aware of?

I rather think it might be less cowardly if, as Ben suggests, any further discussion is done under your own name(s) - most people here don't hide under anonymity, and I certainly don't. And TN is a forum for discussion, not for anonymous snark - I say what I say and stand by it (or not, if I happen to be stimulated to rethink). And you should have the cojones to do the same.

TimT said...

I must admit that on reading Lucky T's comment, I reconsidered my own response to the show... I found it quite comprehensible and easy to follow, but maybe that's because I've seen (another production of) the show before, and been familiar with it as one of Stravinsky's works for years. I also think of Stravinsky as one of the most accessible of the modernists, but then again, maybe that's just through my familiarity with his works! And the program seemed, if anything, to oversimplify the plot... maybe that influenced me as well?!? Anyway, I'm not exactly fussy when it comes to these matters - I think anyone who is interested in classical music and opera, or modernist shows like this, learns to take what comes!

The audience seemed quite large when I went, on closing night. I take what Lucky says about the need to get across to good ol' Joe Public, but they seem to have been doing quite well, considering!

Guess I just have to reiterate my first comment - I liked it!

TimT said...

Oh - and I really appreciate the discussion and debate about the show on this post, and the way this blog is a forum for such talk - thanks!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Tim - perhaps I ought to make clear that disagreement is welcome here, and is good because it stimulates debate and further thinking. I just don't like it when there seems to be some kind of venom happening, since I think it's possible to disagree - even passionately - without being mortal enemies; and for reasons I don't understand (and am not interested in, since my only involvement with Hayloft is as an audience member), there seems to be a bit of gratuitous edge in the comments after Hayloft shows. Maybe I'm imagining it. I hope so.

Michael Nunn said...

What a dialogue! Too bad I'm seeing this only now (some seven months later) as I am researching performances of this work. Ms Croggon, I thoroughly enjoyed your comments/review and was taken aback by the energy, both pro and con, of the responses. It is interesting that most of the critique was directed towards the dramatis personae as opposed to the musicians (who were referred to as a 'band' at one point, I think). The production was also referred to as a 'play,' which I don't think was Stravinsky's intention so much as a 'performance piece' to be 'lue, joue et dansee (read, played and danced)'.

Not having had the opportunity to see this production I am not aware as to whether 'the band' comprised the original seven orchestral parts or was a reduction. Stravinsky's underwriter for the premier production, Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart, went on to commission several works for the composer afterwards, including a condensed version of the fable to be played by piano, violin and clarinet.

Ms Croggon, you seem to know as much about everything else literary as you do about drama (e.g. early 20th century psychology and philosophy). It would have been wonderful if there were some notes about the musicians' craftsmanship. 'L'Histoire' is considered virtuosic among instrumentalists and for me, this supercedes anything the dramatic players could bring to the stage. For example, as a trumpet player I am always thrilled to hear the double-tonguing interval to a high C# and back down again (actually, the score calls for cornet but is often played by a trumpet) in the "March" theme.

Thank you for providing your excellent forum. I will tag this site and hopefully return some commentary in more timely fashion.

Michael Nunn
Interlochen, Michigan, USA

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Michael

Thanks for your comment - and yes, a shame you couldn't have been part of the argy bargy.

It will no doubt cause you no surprise that music is something abotu which I feel I have little expertise. There I am merely an enthusiastic listener, I'm afraid! But as I recall, there were seven musicians.