June 18, 2004

The Soldier's Tale
By Debra Craine
Linbury, Covent Garden

STRAVINSKYíS 1918 moral fable is a devilish tale. Not just because it gives Satan the upper hand, but because itís fiendishly difficult to stage. With its uneasy mix of spoken text, live music and dance, The Soldierís Tale challenges a director to find the right balance. The director in this case is the Royal Ballet choreographer William Tuckett, a man long interested in the narrative possibilities of dance. This is his first foray into text-heavy performance and he must have thought it a simple story: a violin-loving soldier, on his way home on leave, is waylaid by the Devil and enticed into a life-changing Faustian pact. 

Yet in this updated translation by Paul Griffiths, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuzís preachy libretto seems poetically inert and debilitating to the drama. It needs the acid of Stravinskyís Slavic-inflected score, here conducted by Richard Bernas, to make the story kick.

Stronger choreography might have been the answer, but Tuckett doesnít fight hard enough for his art form. His movement seeks character rather than style and strives to segue from pure dance phrases into narrative action, but he doesnít go far enough in asserting dance as an equal player.

Surprising, really, when you consider the talent at his disposal. For here we have the dream team of British actor-dancers, led by Adam Cooper as the Soldier and Matthew Hart as the Devil. Add Zenaida Yanowsky, shining Royal Ballet principal dancer, and Will Kemp, who worked with Matthew Bourne before Hollywood beckoned, and you have a quartet of dancers with outstanding dramatic capabilities.

Cooperís Soldier is both fool and fooled, yet vain enough to believe he can defeat the Devil. Yanowsky, as both the fiancťe he abandons and the Princess he later weds, reveals her depth as a serious actress and shrill comedian. Kemp is the elegantly sarcastic narrator, presiding over events like an MC at a shabby cabaret.

But itís Hart who dominates. He delivers a bravura performance as Satan, revealing himself in such contrasting guises (and in such impeccably varied accents) that itís almost impossible to believe itís the same dancer each time. Sinister, seductive, feral or urbane: Hart does them all with staggering energy and conviction.

The other star of this show is the designer Lez Brotherston, who creates a theatre-within-a-theatre in the Linbury Studio, and miraculously gives the poky venue a sense of space. The action takes place in his threadbare Victorian theatre, all faded red velvet and tarnished gold fringe. The setting is fabulously seedy, in a kind of Moulin Rouge way. Can it really be the first time that this brilliant designer has worked at Covent Garden?

Copyright The London Times