Alice Oswald
Brink Productions
Barbican Theatre

Memorial with Helen Morse Credit: Shane Reid
Memorial with Helen Morse Credit: Shane Reid
Memorial with Helen Morse Credit: Shane Reid

This is a staging of Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial, which has its roots in Homer’s Iliad. It isn’t a straightforward translation of that account of the Trojan War for it strips away story to concentrate on remembering the dead and their deaths. Here, in a production conceived by director Chris Drummond and Yaron Lifschitz, it is a centennial commemoration of the 1918 Armistice commissioned from Australia’s Brink Productions as part of the 14-18 NOW programme.

Homer’s epics weren’t written texts, they were passed orally and this production continues that tradition with Australian actress Helen Morse as the bard while a huge chorus, who represent the 215 soldiers of both sides whom Homer names, and a group of musicians perform Jocelyn Pook’s magnificently rich supporting score. The result is a multi-layered piece of theatre of great sensitivity over a mesmerising 100+ minutes.

As the poet herself explains: “the Iliad is an oral poem. This translation presents it as an attempt—in the aftermath of the Trojan War—to remember people's names and lives without the use of writing. I hope it will have its own coherence as a series of memories and similes laid side by side: an antiphonal account of man in his world... compatible with the spirit of oral poetry, which was never stable but always adapting itself to a new audience, as if its language, unlike written language, was still alive and kicking.”

Musicians and soloists appear first, lined up on a rostrum above the stage and lit by their music stands while below Helen Morse emerges from the darkness at stage level. As she begins her roll call, which becomes an elegiac memorial to all war dead, not just those ancient ones, an arm rises from the ground into light and gradually the stage is revealed as a meadow covered with corpses who are recalled to life. The band above are a bit like the gods up on Olympus.

Music, movement and text all carry meaning, usually complementing or supporting each other, sometimes taking precedence. If words are sometimes lost, they may have musical recapitulation but if swamped by the music’s sonority the loss of a few phrases isn’t important, it is the cumulative effect here that is so important. Action rarely illustrates text as it briefly sketches a person and describes a death in sharp detail.

There is a constantly changing pattern of movement among the chorus in modern dress, young and old and of all shapes and sizes. Crowds cross the stage, in unison or contra-directional, they snake in file, circle, form what could be campfire groups or picnicking families. It looks very simple but is delicately designed to make it charged with emotion.

Sometimes, a figure or small group will emerge from the mass to link with the oral image: a little girl in her skirt but sporting a Spartan helmet or a group of figures whose semi-dance gestures echo some statement, a body is carried, a child picked up by a parent, figures are supported as though wounded or mourning. There’s a sequence when the whole stage becomes a river that people struggle through while a lone figure emerges from beneath a last wave, at one time everyone seems to be waltzing, both mixed and same sex pairs and in one brief, magical moment the busy stage is dotted with silent figures in World War I battledress.

Sometimes, a few phrases will give a back-story: a shepherd leaping from a cliff to reach the girl he has just fallen in love with, the seer who tried to stop his boys going to war, but there is an ongoing litany of fatal wounds being inflicted, swords piercing flesh driven home with the help of a goddess, of heads being cut off, itemised incidents told without relish by Morse’s rich voice as she moves among and in front of the others. At one point she joins their pattern of movement before emerging again into the spotlights.

Jocelyn Pook’s score is full of thrilling sonorities, sometimes ecclesiastically ritualistic it seems to draw on English folk-song, Cycladic dances, Pontic rhythms, tinkling bells, a richness of evocative sounds sometimes strange sometimes seeming very familiar. It is music you want to hear again, the players (who include Pook herself) make it memorable and Morse’s performance is a tour de force and the chorus, drawn from choirs across London, deliver a dedication and emotional concentration that hugely contributes to the success of this compelling stage work.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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