The specters of conflicts past, present and future are fused together in a striking spectacle of sound, vision and drama in Chekhov International Theatre Festival’s The War, receiving its world premiere at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.
A bohemian group of friends gather in Paris in 1913 as the thunderclouds of war gather over Europe. Opinions vary: Russian poet Vladimir cites The Iliad as proof that war is capable of producing great works of art, whilst others decry conflict of any kind as abhorrent. When events overtake them and the group receive the news that British painter George is dead, they attempt to deal with their loss by reliving the trauma of the war, using Homer’s work itself as a therapeutic vehicle to allow them to come to terms with their emotions.
The War is therefore a multi-layered and complex piece, flitting between the memories and actual experiences of its ensemble of characters and presented on a gigantic scale. Its success is testament to the vision of its director Vladimir Pankov, who, Arachne-like, weaves threads into a complex tapestry to create a piece which at times blusters and boils; and at others pulses with a sense of pathos and loss.
Almost every moment of The War provides a grand spectacle. The 19-strong cast are nearly always on stage together: whether personifying the large ensemble of characters, providing musical accompaniment, or hanging suspended from the ropes above the stage. Sometimes, in the production’s most arresting moments, they are doing all three.
Pavel Akimkin’s moving portrayal of George is central to the piece. Small in stature, he is often dwarfed by the action exploding around him, stumbling and at times lost on his journey from idealistic clarity to madness. The women in his life are also powerfully realised, in particular Seseg Khapsasova’s portrayal of George’s wife Betsy, who traces her own tortuous path from hope to despair.
Sound plays a pivotal part in The War, with Pankov’s acclaimed SounDrama technique in full aural effect. Blending operatic voice with onstage musical performance and live audio mixing, the ever-present soundtrack to the characters’ journeys is a powerful, living entity, as much a star of the piece as its uniformly impressive cast. Vocal performances are strong and often unsettling, from Akimkin’s plaintive soprano and Khapsasova’s smoky jazz-tinged voice to Maria Byork’s astonishingly haunting performance, playing on Georgian folk music and Greek choral lament to memorable effect.
Although it is a trifle overlong at two hours and forty-five minutes, The War provides a sensory spectacle which weaves together cohesively to create an original piece of multimedia theatre with the strength and conviction to treat its oft-trodden topic in such an original and unforgettable way.
The War is at the King’s Theatre until Aug 11
Sound is a key component.