Memorial – Barbican, London

Composer:  Jocelyn Pook

Director:  Chris Drummond

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

How can we remember those who have died in war? Should we write an elegy for every life lost? As we approach the 100th anniversary since the end of World War One, surely it’s impossible that we can remember, or even give name to, each person killed in that conflict. But Memorial, an epic elegy, tries valiantly to do this.

But instead of the mud of The Somme and Passchendaele, we have the mud of Troy. Australian actor Helen Morse recites Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial, and recalls the name of every soldier who died in Homer’s Iliad. Each one of these soldiers is represented on stage by a real person, drawn from choirs and performance groups around London. The wide stage of the Barbican is, at times, almost overflowing with bodies.

The problem is that this metaphor doesn’t quite work. The number of Trojan deaths as listed by Homer is finite – 215 – while the number of casualties in the Great War is uncountable. Gods and mythical heroes like Ajax and Achilles have a place in Oswald’s long poem, but these legendary lives don’t quite match up with the real lives lost between 1914 and 1918.

To music composed by Jocelyn Pook, most famous for her soundtrack to the film Brick Lane, Morse speaks Oswald’s poem with great clarity, sometimes listing Homer’s soldiers as if they were words to a lullaby. Many lines are alliterative, reminiscent of Old English poems: ‘a flash of flesh’ or ‘came out clean through the chin’. Deaths are rendered elegantly here: ‘Poor Iphidamas. Now he is only iron, sleeping its iron sleep.’ But despite Morse’s delivery and the beauty of Oswald’s poetry, the text becomes repetitive, as we hear how more and more people died. Perhaps that’s the point, that there are just too many soldiers to give stories to.

Pook’s music, played lived above the stage, is evocative with singers sometimes repeating Oswald’s words and, at others, performing Bulgarian and Macedonian laments. Pook is here, too, playing the viola. Violins saw quietly with grief, and handbells mourn the dead, but overall the music is muted, considering there are potentially over 200 voices to use.

At 105 minutes, Memorial is too long, and the spectacle of seeing so many people march across Michael Hankin’s simple set of a grassy meadow decreases with each iteration. The haunting finale, Thousands of Names, Thousands of Leaves, would be more effective if it came sooner. Every effort to remember all those who died in World War One will fail. But this is a beautiful failure.

Runs until 30 September 2018 | Image: Contributed

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A Beautiful failure

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