Discounting sneak previews of The James Plays, this year’s Edinburgh Festival theatre contribution opened officially with The War – no need to specify which. Under the auspices of the Chekhov International Theatre Festival the Russian director Vladimir Pankov’s world premiere SounDrama Studio production is a rich mixture of movement, music, verse and visual surprises commemorating the cataclysm sparked off in 1914.
An ambitious blend of sources gives us a story woven equally from an English poet-novelist, a visionary Russian and Homer’s Iliad. Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Notes of a Cavalry Officer by Nikolai Gumilyov, born 1886, first husband of Anna Akhmatova, adventurer and man of letters – inevitably arrested and executed in 1921– provide a narrative core, in parallel with passages by Homer read over the soundtrack. The combination is at its most moving with a bereavement in the Great War counterpointed by Hector’s aged parents begging for their son’s corpse from the unyielding Achilles.
The reference to a soundtrack is inescapable. Pankov choreographs sound as carefully as he directs movement or changes images. Writer Irina Lychagina is credited not with a script but the “libretto”. Not that words are all sung; the piece is a spoken play but the cast are given musical commentaries in a wide range of styles, including Sprechgesang for a meticulously rehearsed ensemble with a jagged vocal line and irregular rhythms. There is offstage chanting, keening, actors playing instruments when necessary – particularly mock-military sounds; wind, percussion, cello – “Amazing Grace” distorted, Tchaikovsky’s Sugarplum Fairy accompanying a darkly humorous passage in the latrines (ideal sniping targets). Artyom Kim and Sergey Rodyukov, jointly credited music directors and composers, range from Romantic salon touches to soured dissonance.
Visually we open in Edwardian summer. Men in toppers, women in white dresses, discuss art, argue about the likelihood and nature of war – catastrophe or social cleanser? Military presence is signalled by army greatcoats descending on hangers from above. The English protagonist George forgets poetry and philosophy, finds sympathy for fellow-soldiers, even the enemy, and is killed, prompting mixed feelings of grief and reproach in his circle.
At three hours without an interval, the piece is not so much long as uneven, with several climaxes inevitably followed by momentary flatness. The scenes between George’s wife and sister, their varying degrees of guilt and their emotional self-analysis, occurs so late as to seem like an afterthought. But the company is unflagging, dedicated, versatile; and the two or three minutes of intentional silence in the battle, when we spectators were unsure of what was happening, has never in my experience struck an audience into such immobile, transfixed silence.