Helen Chadwick and her team have been keen to avoid the word “musical” in talking about their latest piece. You can see why. The grim realities of war don’t really lend themselves to toe-tapping and jazz hands. Of course, the musical form is capable of much more than silliness and schmaltz, but there is an atmosphere of meticulous care that surrounds this project, right down to the precision of the language used to describe it. As the journalists at its centre know, words are important.
Six years in the making, War Correspondents is an ambitious, wide-ranging piece of work. The performance consists of 29 songs, all crafted from the words of correspondents interviewed by Chadwick and from various poems on the subject of war. Taking in numerous conflicts, its focus is war in general rather than any one war in particular, while the subject of war reporters allows an examination both of conflict itself and its impacts locally and globally. We see the devastation and casualties on the ground, as well as the headlines around the world and the lasting psychological damage on those who bear witness.
But how do you represent something as destructive, as relentless and as complex as war? War Correspondents’ answer to that question is to highlight all of those qualities, refusing to make neat sense out of the material it is working with. Rather than following an elegant narrative arc, the action rises and falls. Hostilities escalate and melt away. Attempts to impose logic are confounded by often seemingly meaningless flashes of violence and brutality. And like war – to adopt one of the phrases used by war correspondent and interviewee Chris Stephen in the post-show Q&A – it slowly bleeds out, refusing the closure of a clear, conclusive end point.
This can make it occasionally difficult to watch. With little but the central thematic thread to tie the succession of songs together, the show has a tendency to meander – aptly, of course, but in a way that challenges the concentration of viewers. Chadwick’s music, meanwhile, is as slippery as her subject matter. While beautiful and haunting, it offers little to grasp onto, with melodies that swell and dissolve like the dramatic action. This all takes place against the virtually unchanging backdrop of Miriam Nabarro’s simple yet evocative design, suggestive of the constant cycle of conflict, as are Steven Hoggett’s understated, repetitive movements.
Though they might require a certain quality of concentration, the songs themselves grapple with an impressive array of issues, from the morally uncertain position of the bystander to the consequences of what is and isn’t said. There is not just one shade of grey here but many. What we get less of is what compels these journalists to do what they do in the first place. In the post-show discussion, Stephen guiltily confesses that part of it is the thrill of being in a warzone, an aspect of this picture that it would have been interesting to see explored further.
But perhaps that is an unreasonable criticism. The point is that a piece like this can never encompass the full, terrifying scope of war – or even one single facet of it. And Chadwick and her team are well aware of that. Instead, War Correspondents offers a rich texture of overlapping voices, a cacophony that echoes the noisy, complex, multi-layered nature of war itself.