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The War (Edinburgh International Festival)

A production from Russia marking the First World War centenary is a spectacular highlight of this year's EIF

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
'As good as any Russian ensemble we've seen here' - The War
© Vladimir Vyatkin

This emotionally devastating and technically astounding production from the Chekhov International Theatre Festival in Moscow is described by director Vladimir Pankov as an opera with text recitals.

Pankov's company, SounDrama, creates a panoramic war poem in sound, lighting, fierce ensemble acting, wheezy band music and a startling reanimation of familiar staging tricks: the huge, swinging chandelier, fluttering papers in a wind machine, suspended ghosts.

Starting with an elegantly presented tableau of artists and poets discussing the the future of beauty and the world in 1913, the show dissolves into the story of Great War officer, George, who committed suicide; his case is investigated by a re-telling of Homer's Iliad, the two stories overlapping, one a psychodrama, the other an invocation of the Trojan war, the glories of Achilles and Hector.

"This visit will be remembered as one of the great International Festival occasions"

There are direct descriptive quotations from Homer in a text also derived from the forgotten English novelist, Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero (1929), and the visionary Russian writer, Nikolai Gumilyov, Notes of a Cavalry Officer. The gas masks are like the Greek Myrmidons, the oars of the trireme a processional cortege, the spinning wool a sign of death, a rope on the chandelier.

In one unforgettable sequence - the production plays for two and a half uninterrupted hours - the beating shields at the death of Hector elide with a distorted chorale of "Amazing Grace"; in another, the increasingly distraught figure of Pavel Akimkin's George picks out the notes of the Sugar Plum Fairy with his right foot, lying flat on his back on the piano.

The acting company - Pyotr Markin is a towering, basso-voiced cavalry officer, Maria Bjork a keening Greek tragedy queen - is as good as any Russian ensemble we've seen here, and that includes the Rustaveli of Tbilisi and the Maly of St Petersburg. That piano, and the unusual plasticity of the acting style reminded me especially of the Maly, though I've never heard anything like the stereo-sonic sound effects of the music and terrible beauty of war; this visit will be remembered as one of the great International Festival occasions.

The War is at the King's Theatre until 11 August