The crackle of a wind-up gramophone at the opening of this epic evocation of war's mighty blast can only hint at what follows over the next two-and-a-half hours in this world premiere of Vladimir Pankov's production for his tellingly named SounDrama Studio. In Paris, 1913, a group of poets, painters and free-thinking aesthetes are gathered for Christmas. With storm clouds already gathering, some see the impending conflict as a disaster, some as a necessary cleansing, others as an inspirational romance. It is English painter George, however, who is killed on the frontline, causing his poet friend Vladimir's intense mourning. In order to heal, a radical psychiatrist has George's friends and family role-play Homer's Iliad in order to get to the root of their own pain.
While all this sounds ennui-laden enough, it is in the telling that makes Pankov's co-production with Chekhov International Theatre Festival, based on Richard Aldington's Death Of A Hero and Nikolai Gumilyov's Notes Of A Cavalry Officer, so explosive. As George's soul-sapping decline is unravelled over 17 scenes, or "rhapsodies" as they're announced onstage, Pankov's cast of 19 navigate their way through a maelstrom of discordant modernist chorales, strident brass band marches and ancient East European keening as chandeliers swing, performers are hoisted into the air as they play their instruments and an entire regiment of great-coats crash down from above.
Sergei Zemlyansky and Yekaterina Kislova's choreography, Artyom Kim and Sergey Rodyukov's live score and Maxim Obrezkov's design help make for an urgent theatrical whirlwind that demonstrates exactly how artistic ideals can be destroyed by war's ugly reality, whatever the cause.