Formed in 2016, the Newry-based Fews Ensemble (the name recalls the nearby Fews Woods of south Armagh) has been gradually emerging as one of Ireland’s leading chamber music groups. One of its most successful programmes, pre-lockdown, was ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ by Igor Stravinsky. After five sold-out shows in Belfast, Warrenpoint, and Kilkenny back in 2018-19, this is being revived from May 31 with performances in Dublin’s Smock Alley and the Lyric Theatre Belfast.
A stripped-down music-theatre piece, ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ was created in the lean middle months of 1918 for actors, a dancer, and seven instrumentalists, and for this tour it brings the ensemble together with award-winning actor Ciarán Hinds (playing all the roles) and dancer Emily Ayers. Minimal—if any—staging is needed, and the piece retells an old Russian folk tale of a soldier who sells his fiddle to the devil in exchange for infinite wealth (there’s a catch, of course…).
We caught up with the Fews Ensemble’s director, violinist Joanne Quigley McParland, to find out more.
GP: Why ‘The Soldier’s Tale’? Where did you first come across it?
JQM: I first came across the piece when I was at college in Manchester—it was actually one of the pieces on my conducting module, and I had to conduct a couple of movements from it. I fell in love with it then, and it’s been something that I always wanted to do. It’s a really special project to me, and I’m so happy to bring it to Dublin.
GP: How does this fit into the work of the ensemble?
JQM: The Fews is a flexible chamber ensemble, we like to perform things that are mainstream as well as lesser-known works, and in unusual combinations when we can, and this seemed like the perfect piece. Coupled with that was the fact that I met Ciarán Hinds totally by chance back in 2011. When I started looking at how we could do this show, on a very tight budget, I thought I would ask him if he wouldn’t mind narrating the whole thing and playing all the parts, and he was up for that, so that’s where this current production began its life.
GP: What is your approach in this production?
JQM: We do it unconducted, so it’s directed from the violin. It’s the kind of piece where the music, and the drama in it, is enough, and it doesn’t really need a set. So, we don’t have any set—Ciarán is at a lectern playing all these parts solely with his facial expressions and his voice. We also have a dancer, Emily Ayers, who has choreographed the dance sequence which appears near the end of the whole piece.
GP: ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ is about an hour long, so you’re including other pieces. How did you choose them?
JQM: People are now wanting to hear more, so we had the challenge of finding what to programme with it, because it’s not the easiest thing to programme something alongside. When we did it initially in 2018, I programmed the ‘Histoire du Tango’ by Astor Piazzola, linking to the Tango movement in the Stravinsky, and it gelled together really well. We’re doing it with guitar and violin, with Redmond O’Toole playing guitar. This time we also decided we needed one more piece to go with it, and we found Rick Robinson’s arrangement of the Manuel de Falla's ‘The Three-Cornered Hat’, a Spanish dance suite, for the same instrumentation as ‘The Soldier’s Tale’. The fact that there’s dance elements going through all the programme is a nice unifying thing, and the de Falla is a new piece for us, so we’re looking forward to delving into that.
GP: Are you looking forward to performing in Smock Alley?
JQM: Yes, I’ve played there before, with another ensemble, and it’s really a perfect venue for this kind of piece. The space is slightly in the round, and it’s quite intimate, and I think it’s going to work really well there for the entire programme. What I like to do in all of our concerts is to make it as informal as we can—we always talk about what we’re going to play, and it’s nice to feel that connection with the audience, chat a bit about the programme and how it’s come together, so it feels really homely and warm.
GP: How have you found working with a professional actor?
JQM: It’s actually quite a lot of work for Ciarán. When we first did it, I think it was his first time working with classical musicians at such a level and being part of a piece like this. There’s one section in particular where he has to be completely rhythmic with the ensemble, and he’s on top of it every time. He’s been amazing to work with on this project. Before we did it, we had lots of phone conversations about how we were going to do things and trying to put it together. It’s a real tour-de-force for him, basically an hour-long oration, and playing multiple characters—and complex characters. He’s just behind me, and sometimes when he’s playing the devil it sends shivers up your spine—it’s chilling, the way he does it!
The Fews Ensemble, directed by Joanne Quigley McParland, with Ciarán Hinds (actor) and Emily Ayers (dancer) present Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldiers Tale’ at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, from 31 May to 4 June, and Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on 5 June. For more information and booking details, see: smockalley.com & lyrictheatre.co.uk