Soldier and Death - Free

Sun 21st – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Dominic Sowa

at 10:42 on 22nd Aug 2011

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An empty shop in Princess Mall shopping centre is a rather strange venue for a play of any sort. Complete with an oddly placed counter cum lighting booth, this quirky venue is the location for a quirky play. Edinburgh’s new and local experimental theatre group, Relief Theatre, definitely spices up the bland consumerist surroundings with a touch of Russian folk tales.

The play channels the oral storytelling traditions of the origins of the fable. Spoken in chapters by various narrators, it is possible to feel transported by the melodic rhyming verse into the deep Russian forests of days gone by. The audience is packed in intimately in this small space which works stupendously, drawing them into a deep connection with the story. Audience members of young ages were even seen edging forward past chairs to be closer to the stage. However it must be said that their actions were caused by a desire to grab a view of the play’s pièce de résistance: the puppets.

The show uses puppets to visually represent the story of the protagonist of the play, the ill fated soldier. A beautiful visual effect, it is used intelligently to draw the audience in with great success whilst evoking connections to the great traditions of storytelling seen around the world. The use of puppetry is quaint and with subtle yet powerful elements of light changes and sound a la the actors, it is thoroughly engaging and highly entertaining. The puppets give what would otherwise be a simple piece a certain kitsch edge.

Though this is a piece where puppets replace actors, the dynamism comes from the narrators themselves. Generally well narrated throughout, special attention must be given to Rosie Al-Mulla. Her narration is beautiful yet dark, emotional yet powerful, a true storyteller onto whose words we hang off. She is in short the embodiment of this great tradition of storytelling that The Soldier and Death draw their energy from. She shows that narration is not a simple theatrical device but a whole genre in its own right.

Though this is not a play that all would leave feeling moved by, I expect it to be quite hit and miss; it is a play that for the right audience member is profoundly and sublimely beautiful. This is a play that does not discriminate between ages, but rather invites all into an evening of fun complete with Tsars, demons and travelling soldiers with magical objects.

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Imogen O'Sullivan

at 11:00 on 22nd Aug 2011

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The initially impressive thing about this production was the packed audience it managed to attract, despite being the first in the run and set in an impossibly situated location in Prince’s Mall that meant it was in direct competition with audible strains of Katy Perry. The piece was simple and humble throughout but, in taking that attitude, fuelled the imaginations of an audience making the entire theatrical experience sweetly enchanting, particularly for children.

The puppetry was exquisite and showcased clear commitment and dedication to rehearsal, particularly from Tom Louis and James Beagon, but with a thoroughly impressive focus from every single member of the ensemble that encouraged an audience to immerse themselves in the Balkan folklore. As the piece progressed you began to ignore the figures twisting each puppet into shapes and it is testimony to the simple skill of the cast that you became emotionally attached to the faceless dolls, allowing for the portrayal of a child’s sickness to be truly affecting and the tiniest alteration in the soldier’s position to effectively portray visual stances of aging or praying.

Although the use of feathers to represent cursed demons was not quite as effective, it worked beautifully in the case of the string of souls tracing their way to heaven; a visually magical moment. The unity of the ensemble in creating a representation of the devil was focussed and striking, showing that the entire cast truly revelled in being able to tell the story of ‘our soldier’. This commitment and enthusiasm was powerfully apparent in the admirable emotional range created by the narration; Rosie Al-Mulla and Chazz Repton particularly skilled in this area.

The bestial vocalisation of the demons was also indicative of the dedication these actors poured into their piece, totally immersed in the story they were telling. Although never mind-blowing, this show was brilliant and beautiful in its simplicity, a sound testimony to the power of imagination that was shared by a deservedly large audience. Perfect for children, or just for those who love a well-told story, this original piece of free fringe theatre has to be what the festival is about – a rare gem.

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