The artistry in selling your soul
The Soldier’s Tale
Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny
A century on, Stravinsky's moral tale still points a finger, writes Emer O'Kelly.
You can't beat a good story. No matter how often it's told, it has the power to absorb, refresh itself and come to life anew. So each re-telling of the Faust legend seems to have a new relevance.
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And in the case of The Soldier's Tale - at the Watergate Theatre in Kilkenny for the Kilkenny Arts Festival - there's an added level of the legend of the appointment with death in Samarra for the traveller who can't escape his waiting presence.
The Soldier's Tale premiered in 1918, to a world weary and frightened after four years of horror in World War I. It must have had an extraordinary resonance for audiences, and it is a supreme credit to the new performance that, a century later, it has lost none of its power.
The original libretto by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz has been translated and rendered into free verse by Jeremy Sams to tell the story of the boy soldier returning to his village only to be enticed by the devil to trade his old violin for a magic book which will give him the secret of becoming unimaginably wealthy.
It's a multi-disciplinary piece with the fairly newly formed Fews Ensemble directed by Joanne Quigley McParland, who also plays the solo violin in the Stravinsky score - heavily influenced by the then new form of jazz - with soaring power and dexterity.
The tale is told by the eminent actor Ciaran Hinds, his brooding presence and powerful vocal range veering from snarling triumph through the lilt of dawning love.
Originally, separate actors played the various parts, but in Hinds's hands the parade of the beguiled soldier and the devil in all his forms come alive through a twist of the head, a nuance in the voice, the slight movement of a hand.
He describes the devil's deal, that the young soldier try what is being offered for three days: a life of unimaginable luxury, the clincher being to smoke huge Havana cigars rolled between the thighs of dusky slave girls. Except when he leaves the devil's company, without his violin, three years rather than three days have passed, and he is unrecognised by his friends and family, and must live his life of luxury in loneliness.
Years later, tiring of possessions, he sets out to find peace and again encounters the devil, this time masquerading as an old woman, and manages to trade his riches for his old violin. And in a neighbouring country, he plays it. The music revives the beautiful dying daughter of the king, and the pair marry.
But the princess (choreographed and danced exquisitely by Emily Ayers) is the eternal temptress Eve, and persuades her lover to take her back to his old country so she can learn about his past.
And there, after stepping over the border, the devil awaits. There are always choices to be made, he sneers. You can never have everything. And finding that out means the soldier is now in his power forever. Greed can take many forms, but is always punished.
The eternal lesson has been offered in many forms many times. This one has the capacity to draw one in, partly due to it being anything but simplistic: there is a moral ambiguity implied, through both the music and the libretto, which almost makes an audience forget that they already know the outcome, and that, of course, is the secret of drama, in words and music.
You could just call it a successful melding of art forms, wonderfully presented. But that doesn't do justice to the piece as offered in Kilkenny.
The Soldier's Tale's apparent simplicity represents a complex melding of its complementary elements - but that's lame as a summary of such artistry.
Perhaps it's best to say: it's a cracker. And that's whether your taste is for drama, poetry, modern music, jazz or dance. All the art forms are there, brilliantly delivered.