Epic. Captivating. Spellbinding. It is very easy to run out of superlatives to describe Vladimir Pankov’s The War, which forms part of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival. The ambitious, all-encompassing nature of Pankov’s production is implied in the title, but it merely hints at the definitive, defiant stance of the work, the universality of the themes of the play, and of the characters within it, who are at once intensely specific and entirely collective.
Two narratives occur simultaneously: a war story beginning Christmas 1913, based on Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero (the majority of the narrative is drawn from this source, as well as the poignant comparisons with the Trojan War)and Nikolai Gumilyov’s (the first husband of Anna Akhmatova) Notes of a Cavalry Officer, which is portrayed alongside a plotted version of Homer’s Iliad.The entire performance is delivered in Greek and Russian, with English supertitles. Part opera, part Greek tragedy, part surrealist installation; The War is a visual spectacle, which complements Irina Lychagina’s outstanding libretto. The company behind the production, SounDrama, use music to form a basis of their theatre. This is evident throughout, from the incantatory opening sequence, to the snippets of Tchicovsky, to parts of the Iliad delivered as a rousing dictator’s speech, and a stunning adaptation ofAmazing Grace. The extent to which music colours and shapes the drama is quite extraordinary, from the moving company pieces, down to smaller moments- including the rather comic episode in which an order from the offensive is delivered via a drowning trombonist suspended above the stage, before being ‘interpreted’ into Russian.
Are we “too civilised” for war, or is it perhaps “absolutely inevitable”?
This is posed to the audience during the opening sequence. The production attempts to answer this question, searching for the potential beauty in war, as a process that clears the way for new life. However, this is balanced against the sheer damage war can do to the individual, explored in the discussions about psychodrama. Rhapsody 8 was a particularly superb example of an attempt to answer the question posed. The image of women punting across the stage through the dead bodies to the haunting melody of a soprano demonstrated this juxtaposition between the beauty of war, and the sheer damage, implications, and horror it wreaks. The conclusion of this rhapsody, in a moment of complete silence, was evocative, bringing this epic production into the microcosm of the individual.
The whole company gave a vivid performance, excelling in both their individual roles and their ensemble work. A feast to all the senses and the mind, I was completely immersed for the entire two and a half hours, and my desire upon exiting The War was to watch it all over again.