Memorial by Alice Oswald.
Composed by Jocelyn Pook. Directed by Chris Drummond. Brink Productions. Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Festival Centre. March 1-6 2018.
|Leading Australian actress, Helen Morse, narrates Alice Oswald's elegy to the Trojan dead
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
Song soars across the sand of Troy, a chorus of lament for the dead. Dunes of dusty earth bear the bodies of the dead, lost long ago in the Trojan Wars. A solitary figure in the landscape Helen Morse begins the narrative poem and account of soldiers lost in the wars. Alice Oswald’s poem pays homage to the Homers epic poem The Iliad, richly laden with the fulsome sound of imagery and resonating with the sacrifice of life and fortune. The sound of the orchestra gently pervades the air, evoking the haunting tone of composer, Jocelyn Pook’s accompaniment to Oswald’s poetic account of the fates of soldiers, killed during the savage war.
Slowly, as Morse introduces the names of soldiers whose bones now lie beneath the battlefield, the dunes move and a sea of hands reach out towards the sky. The dunes roll and from the earth emerges the Soldier Chorus, over a hundred community singers, dressed in contemporary clothing and appearing as the modern-day descendants of the men, women and children, slain or left to struggle for their survival in their grief. This is the legacy of war, the painful devastation of humanity, beautifully spoken with such sensitivity and emotion by Morse, evocative in the sounds of the orchestra, given soulful voice by Soprano Siobhan Owe, Mezzo Soprano, Melanie Pappenheim, counter tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny, Bulgarian singer Belinda Sykes and Macedonian singer Tanja Tzarovska. The audience sits in revered silence, transported by the aching grief of Morse’s clear voice and Oswald’s verse.
The stage restores to the fields of Greece, sparsely grassed, yet dry and infertile. It is a harsher landscape that has inherited the scars of war. Morse, in every tone and breath of her voices lest forth the black grief, made of the earth. Hers is the song of futility and loss, of lives cut short by spears and the cruel fate of the soldier. Oswald’s imagery captures the horror of spears through the nipples, spears that tear at the flesh and heads that roll across the ground. Poetry softens the vocal impact of the horror, but the imagery, accompanied by singers, chorus and orchestra create an aural and visual portrait of the fateful deaths of heroes and innocents of war.
Drummond orchestrates his Soldier Chorus with a keen eye. Tableaus, stage walks and group movement by people dressed in everyday clothes reminds us that it is the ordinary citizen who suffers the living agony of conflict. It is the mother who loses a child, the child whose life is cut short, the women who remain to suffer the soldier’s fate and the tyranny of man’s lust for power.
Nigel Leving’s lighting captures with full theatrical effect Oswald’s dirge. Morse paints each portrait of death and sacrifice with a sadness born of suffering and futility. The mass of people upon the stage, in motion or at times in stillness remind us that we are all victims of war, that we all suffer the loss of children, loved ones and family. The Trojan Wars may be forgotten history, but in Syria’s Ghouta, the loss is the same, the grief the same and the devastation the same. Memorial is a reminder that whatever the scale, the individual’s grief, as represented in Morse’s storytelling is the same.
Brink Productions under Drummond’s direction, and in collaboration with movement director Yaron Lifschitz, actor Helen Morse, the orchestra under musical director, Jonathan Peter Kenny, choirmasters Christie Anderson and Carol Young and dancers Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lina Limosani and Larissa McGown members have created an evocative and moving portrayal of Alice Oswald’s poetic elegy to the dead and Jocelyn Pook’s magnificent composition.
In its ambition to entice our senses and stir our minds and touch our hearts, Memorial also makes its own sacrifice. It occasionally sacrifices simplicity for a flood of aural and visual effect. Too often, Morse is impelled to compete with orchestra and choir, so that he story of a particular soldier becomes subsumed by the emotive impact of combined voice and music. It is doubtful that an audience will recall the individual fate of the chosen two hundred and fifteen soldiers who died in Oswald’s account of the Trojan deaths. It is the solitary moments of the spoken word that we will best remember God’s stars that flashed across the sky and then like leaves were blown into oblivion by the wind.
Memorial is a beautiful testament to all who have sacrificed their lives in this utter human folly. It is a richly painted tapestry of poetry, music and storytelling. At times, Morse’s rendition of the poem is compelled to compete with the chorus and the music, so that the story at these moments is lost or quickly forgotten. It is in the stillness of the moment that the poetry can have its most powerful impact. Each element of production plays its part with powerful impact, but it is the sum of all parts that make this performance too long. It obviously did not feel this way for those in front of me who rose swiftly to their feet to applaud this moving tribute to the dead and condemnation of their fate. Brink Productions have shown the virtues of artistic collaboration and passionate theatrical artistry in this evocative festival production of Memorial.