The Soldier and Death

Mon 21st – Sun 27th August 2017

reviews

Jacob Pagano

at 10:25 on 22nd Aug 2017

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‘The Soldier and Death’ begins with all the trappings of a traditional folktale: it tells the story of a soldier on his return home, and invites us to behold his “Adventure, romance, and music.” The script has a prosaic quality, and our narrator muses in the opening moments on a place “Where the wildflowers grow and the green leaves are all around.” The cast of four has good jocular chemistry as they frolic to these tunes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opening twenty minutes. Our soldier protagonist encounters a beautiful woman who has just been ostracized. She serenades and teaches him to dance. He then runs into a fugitive who’s just lost a poker match to a striking townsman with a “Nice sit, a big hat, and a mean smile.” The humor is dry—a few scenes later, for example, our protagonist tries to capture geese in a canvas bag—and one feels that they are being led on a Shrek-like adventure.

Yet, I soon lost focus. Rather than picking up on its varoius story threads, or keeping to the idiom of folklore, ‘The Soldier and Death’ becomes a rather clunky hodgepodge. First, while the characters keep in line with the folk tradition of changing roles, they do so rapidly and incredibly frequently, making it difficult to acclimate. Second, the play introduces yet a third story of an old merchant, and then struggles to weave this plot into anything that generates narrative desire. Finally (and this is what frustrated me the most), the play introduces rather serious elements—a sickly baby, for instance—whilst continuing with its tone of playful (and sometimes scatological) humor. Surely the serious and the comic should, and indeed must, exist next to one another. Yet, ‘The Soldier and Death’ seems to be unaware of some of the emotional intricacies with which it is dealing, and the show is all to ready to switch from dry humor to sad story elements simply to keep the production afloat.

‘The Soldier and Death’ could succeed, I think, if it knew itself better. That is, if it was content sticking to its identity as a folk story. Perhaps it would function better as a children’s play. Then again, Shrek, and all good children’s productions, also exist for the parents. Weaving in multiple layers of humor surely can be done, but sometimes it’s best to stick with one.

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James Tibbles

at 16:43 on 22nd Aug 2017

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A converted church vault is an apt venue for this production. On one hand this show is a simple spiritual tale about compassion and life after death; on the other, Tumble Dry theatre present themselves to be little more than an amateur dramatics group who would be more at home in a rural village hall. Their attempt to entertain falls flat, but at least they are having fun.

In this Russian folk tale, a soldier deserts his home to wander through the country. He encounters various characters throughout the piece from a suffering beggar to a pompous king. Where the original story is a simple, pacey fable, this production expands it into a dramatic enactment framed with oral narration. Tumble Dry theatre are a charming ensemble who have brought the tale to life by attempting to infuse the tale with humour. While the jokes are playful, they unfortunately represent a deep disregard for the Russian soul at the heart of the story. I was disappointed that a fable whose content could be so haunting and hard-hitting was trivialised by gimmicks and crass jokes.

The cast embody their characters well, but are hindered by poor direction and use of space. Multi-roling is necessary in a folk tale such as this, but stylisation and more conviction could easily raise the level of sophistication. Credit must go to Connor Jones who stands out as a confident performer. His physical presence as a beggar, and later a devil, is convincing and enticing. Jones’ musical interludes are also a tantalising accompaniment to the show.

Breaking the fourth wall is equally effective in establishing the oral folk-style and allows the cast to pitch a tone that is light-hearted and self-aware. Despite this, however, pedestrian movement and poorly executed ‘stunts’ when characters supposedly enter the soldier’s nosebag make it feel like a children’s birthday party or role-play game. The cast lacks the charisma to pull off the humour that accompanies self-awareness, but nonetheless shapes an enjoyable story.

Music is also an asset to this production. While I was immediately sceptical on entering the venue to untrained pitchy singing, guitar-accompanied folk tunes imbues the story with fleeting infusions of mood and atmosphere. Again, however, there is a missed opportunity to do something truly magical with the Russian core of the tale.

Finally, the company’s greatest potential lies in its puppetry work. A puppet grim reaper adds an impressive layer to the production and provides a glimpse at the kind of direction this company could go in if they honed their craft a little more.

This re-telling of ‘The Soldier and Death’ certainly has charm, it just lacks attention to detail in production, direction and interpretation of the text. It is brave to attempt the feat of a Russian folk-tale, but a greater level of stage-craft would lift the production.

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