Reviews West End & Central Published 29 September 2018

Review: Memorial at the Barbican

Until 30 September 2018

The common soldiers, the everyday heroes: Ava Davies reviews Alice Oswald’s elegy to the dead of the Iliad.

Ava Davies
Memorial at the Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Memorial at the Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton

I’m rarely bored at the theatre. Angry – a lot of the time. Ambivalent – constantly. Delighted – more than you’d think. But never actually, achingly, right-to-the-bones bored.

Alice Oswald is a gorgeous poet. That feels glib to say. She’s pretty much universally lauded as one of the most important living poets today (mention her in the hallways of my university’s English department and you will hear my professors in paroxysms of joy) and this explosion, this excavation of Homer’s Iliad which focuses on the common soldiers, the everyday heroes, not the Agamemnons or the Hectors – it’s spiky and delicate simultaneously. It’s a raw, artful delight, something I would like to go back and read slowly, in chunks. But it’s really, really not something that works as a nearly 2-hour piece of theatre.

It’s exhausting. Helen Morse, as the only speaking role, the narrator, is a slash of red in the sea of a 200+ strong community choir. She recites Oswald’s poetry unsparingly and precisely. It feels odd to have only one voice speaking when we are surrounded with so many other potential ones. They drift across the stage like ghosts as Morse weaves her way through them, they are constantly present, and yet they feel criminally underused. Why, when this is a poem fundamentally about people and the weight of so many different human lives, do we deify this one figure? Morse is mic-ed up, which makes sense because the Barbican is fucking enormous and she’s the only person speaking, but it means that her voice – cracked and emotional at times, stoic and calm at others, loses any real sense of depth. The air in the Barbican feels shallow.

Chris Drummond directs with this slow, stately pace which aims to be elegiac and beautiful but just feels gruelling. And maybe the boredom I could feel creeping up the back of my spine, knotting itself into the muscles on the side of my neck, was intentional. It’s called Memorial, after all.

When I think of a memorial I think of names engraved into stone, sombre hymns sung, heads bowed in respect. Statues of memorial. Something removed from the viscera of life itself in order to preserve it. But Oswald’s poem is full of life – that’s the point. It’s exploring the feeling of sonder, it’s peeling back the lives of soldiers who are remembered only by their names, and sometimes not even by that. But this play – if I can even call it that – this piece is too removed. The community chorus do give it a little more life – there’s something about a mass of bodies filling up the Barbican space which feels tactile and exciting. Anything done to democratise these spaces is exciting.

Occasionally, very occasionally, all the disparate parts will coalesce into something transcendent. Oswald’s words will ring out, Jocelyn Pook’s orchestra will soar and Nigel Leving’s beautiful, evocative lighting will lift the production up and let it really sing. There are some images which ache with beauty, which allow the silence and pain to ripple out into the space. But it’s not enough.

I don’t know if it should have been staged, which feels strange to say because poetry is an inherently oral form. Perhaps what I mean is that it shouldn’t have been positioned as a piece of theatre. As a piece of theatre, it bored me, and I do not use that word lightly. If it had been transposed to a gallery, rebranded as a piece of durational performance art – then the way time inches along incrementally would feel less stifling, the sense of purgatory which traps you in the theatre would feel more pronounced, more cultivated, more deliberate. It would make more sense to me in that form.

Memorial is on until 30 September 2018 at the Barbican. Click here for more details. 

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Ava Davies is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Memorial at the Barbican Show Info


Directed by Chris Drummond

Written by Alice Oswald

Choreography by Yaron Lifschitz

Cast includes Helen Morse (actor), Melanie Pappenheim, Tanja Tzarowska, Belinda Sykes (singers, musicians)

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