5 stars *****
AS THE SHOW BEGINS, the stage roughly represents a cafe in Paris at Christmas 1913. There’s a piano, a scratchy wind-up phonograph, a group of young people in Edwardian dress; and a great chandelier, brought down for cleaning in what seems like a visual premonition of ruin. The young people, including an English painter called George, are discussing the possibility of war. Some think war in Europe absurd and unthinkable in modern, interconnected times, others argue that war is a great and inevitable aspect of human history, a vital part of manhood; in the background, in Vladimir Pankov’s great stage poem from his Moscow-based SounDrama Studio, the words of Homer’s Iliad come and go, singing of war, both as glory and horror.
The show is also based, though, on two classic Great War memoirs, Russian and English; and soon the he war arrives, filling the stage with heavy grey greatcoats, and taking George’s life. The characters begin a re-enactment in 17 “rhapsodies” which is intended partly as a psychodrama exposing the trauma of war, but often seems like the purest evocation of it, in its pity, horror, and occasional grandeur. Pankov’s “SounDrama” simply ravishes the senses, in 150 minutes of continuous, unforgettable theatre; the 19-strong ensemble cast all play instruments, sing in a rapt operatic style, and act magnificently, creating an avalanche of stunning visual images accompanied by the wild and haunting “jazz” of Mikael Fateev and Anton Feshin’s ambient sound design. In his programme note for 2014, the outgoing Edinburgh International Festival director, Jonathan Mills, makes a powerful case for art as humankind’s best response to the horror of conflict; and although memories and images of war are everywhere, this summer, no work is likely to capture the truth of it, and its bitter and wounding psychological aftermath, with more eloquence, ambition and beauty than this mighty show.