Never has Homer’s Iliad seemed less like a dusty schoolbook text than in this searing ‘excavation’ by poet Alice Oswald, dramatized so effectively by Australian director Chris Drummond and Brink Productions
Oswald’s Memorial is a roll-call of 215 ordinary soldiers who died in the Trojan War. There are no legendary warriors in this production, just a kaleidoscope of men, women and children swirling around the stage en masse or in small family units. Gathered from community choirs across London, they add their voices to those of the musicians suspended above the stage in a glowing box like celestial beings.
At the heart of this performance is the chronicler, the great Australian actor Helen Morse, who carries the narrative alone for nearly two hours. She’s a small, determined figure dressed in a patchwork burgundy velvet dress: her strong voice brims with anger and pity, then softens with love as she tells everyday stories of these men, be they humble shepherds or rich merchants, and the families they have left behind – ‘somebody’s darling son’ as the poem reminds us. Some of the most beautiful words are reserved for the gruesome details of their deaths – often by a spear through the head, heart or throat.
Woven through the spoken words is arresting music by Jocelyn Pook, performed by a small ensemble led by counter-tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny. Peerless mezzo-soprano Melanie Pappenheim takes turns with Macedonian and Bulgarian singers to fill the silence between the stanzas with songs and wild laments. The elegiac nature of this piece is reinforced by string writing (Pook herself played viola) suggesting Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.
The staging is simple – a wide expanse with a few tufts of grass is transformed by clever lighting into a sunny meadow or a dark, death-filled battle field. The musicians fade from view when the focus moves to Helen Morse and once again the poetry becomes the most important part of this drama.
As a memorial to the First World War anniversary, this catalogue of pointless slaughter could not be more poignant. Clothed in simple poetry and sympathetic music, it becomes a transcendent piece of theatre.