The Soldiers Tale
Ciarán Hinds in The Soldiers Tale. Image uncredited.
The Fews Ensemble’s rendering of Stravinsky's The Soldiers Tale is an orchestral production of two halves. Or, rather, three movements. Whose Stravinsky links, outside the title piece, are tenuous at best. And it doesn't really have an orchestra. Let me back up a minute. The eight string Fews Ensemble, directed by violinist Joanne Quigley McParland, are a collective of musicians who resemble a pared back orchestra. All the primary building blocks are represented; winds, strings, brass, percussion, along with a guitarist. Its about quality over quantity, and quality is impressive indeed. As are all three pieces, two orchestral, one a duet between guitar and violin. There's also some reimagined ballet by Emily Ayers, and the vocal prowess of an outstanding Ciarán Hinds. Whose honeyed delivery narrating The Soldiers Tale, is perfectly pitched, showing an exquisite sense of timing and rhythm. Arguably the best musical instrument of the night.
Which is not to denigrate musicians Colm Byrne (Trumpet), Dominic Dudley (Double Bass), Steve Mathieson (Trombone), Éanna Monaghan (Bassoon), Ronan McKee (Percussion), Macdara Ó Seireadáin (Clarinet), Redmond O Toole (Guitar) and the aforementioned McParland. There's nothing finer than seeing artists perform at the top of their game, at the Fews Ensemble are on fine form indeed. Even if Smock Alley throws the occasional acoustic hissy fit. Beginning with The Three Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla, arrangement for septet by Rick Robinson, the lively, energetic composition overflows with Spanish soul. Accentuated by the arrival of Ayers dancing like a ghost in a black dress with a red flower in her hair. The movement is ballet, but there's generous hints of bolero playing at the edges. But Ayers’ modest innovations are steeped in her classicism, whose precision and technical execution is a marvel. Latin themes reemerge in the second piece, Histoire du Tango by Astor Piazzolla, which is exactly what it says on the tin. McParland duetting with guitarist Redmond O Toole, whose eight string guitar is utterly gorgeous to look at never mind listen to, delivering up-tempo, mournful and modern takes on tango.
Ciarán Hinds, Joanne Quigley McParland and Dominic Dudley in The Soldiers Tale. Image uncredited.
A brief intermission and Stravinsky's Faustian tale unfolds. About a soldier who sells his soul to a devious, violin playing, card sharp of a devil. Throw in a sleeping princess, and the dark, often humorous libretto by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz plunders more folklore than the Grimm Brothers. Even as Jermeny Sams' translation uses simple rhymes and rhythms that contribute wonderfully to the overall musicality. Throughout, playing is sublime, but the real star is Hinds. With quite, commanding authority, Hinds reads and recites with a stately presence against which even the orchestra seem to defer. Channelling an English Rumpelstiltskin, what a frightening resemblance to William Defoe at times, Hinds sets tone and temperature perfectly, like Richard Burton in Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds. As Ayers returns to remind us how brilliant she is, McParland's cheesy blocking near the end looks a little twee, suggesting Gone With The Wind watching Atlanta burn. In fact, Hinds and Ayers are watching the devil dance, courtesy of some lively playing. But it's hard to tell without a programme. Yet, by then, The Soldiers Tale has already worked its considerable magic
Critically acclaimed at Kilkenny Arts Festival 2019, it's easy to see why. An exquisite dancer, exquisite musicians, and an exquisite, top class actor; The Soldiers Tale has all the right ingredients. Except they rarely coalesce into something greater than their individual parts, feeling separate rather than connected too much of the time. Side by side rather than cheek to cheek. But when they're individually this good, and Hinds is exceptionally good, you could almost forgive The Soldiers Tale anything. Even as you wonder.
The Soldiers Tale, presented by The Fews Ensemble, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until Jun 4, before transferring to Lyric Theatre, Belfast, June 5