Photo – Sand In Your Eye
Alice Oswald describes her text as “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story”. I immediately asked myself, does atmosphere need a translation? But I suspended disbelief out of my immense respect for Homer’s poem. Memorial is a list of 215 names of people who died in the Trojan War, as reported in the Iliad. Helen Morse recites the list, coloured by Homeric similes, and backed by a chorus of 215 singers but also by a small but versatile group of musicians, both singers and instrumentalists.
The show begins with a solo song that sounds like a Greek lament, and such threnodies recur throughout the music of the show. Melanie Peppenheim’s plangent rendering of these songs is immediately arresting. Then Helen Morse begins the litany. The variety of ways in which Homer describes battlefield deaths, including one where a spear “clave his buttocks, splitting open his bladder” (I may have misquoted slightly) have a certain ghoulish fascination – and the gorgeous variety of similes that Homer uses (though I don’t think he said that Hector swaggered home from the battlefield like someone who’d just parked his new motorcycle) makes you realise that Homer, and the creators of this drama, Chris Drummond and Yaron Lifschitz, are gifted in lyric as well as epic utterance.
The chorus of 215 who populate the stage stand not only for the killed, but for the bereaved, and also sometimes for Helen Morse’s audience (or the audience for the telling of the original epic). They adopt various formations, and when they run out of ideas they walk in both directions across the stage. The score by Jocelyn Pook has a number of formulae which it cycles through, much as the chorus does on stage. Sometimes a particularly beautiful simile is repeated, by Morse or by the chorus or the solo singers, and some musical structure is born. But the music too often lapses into cliché’d folkish harmonies which reduce the list of ghastly deaths to something dangerously close to to banality. The final scene, where the chorus endlessly sing four chords, was, I thought, bathos rather than pathos. I wanted a Greek threnody, unaccompanied, to end the piece as thrillingly as it had begun.
In passing, I wondered that Oswald’s list of fallen, all men, didn’t include the two monstrous deaths which bookend the epic. The first occurs before the Greek ships set sail – Agamemnon’s murder of his eldest daughter Iphigenia. The last occurs later – the murder of Cassandra by Iphigenia’s mother and her lover. The deaths of the men are indeed horrible, but that of these two women are barbaric and unjustified beyond that of the warriors, who have, after all, gone to fight in a war. As we enter a week dedicated to women, this omission seems to me particularly glaring. But barbarism was not a theme of the litany, despite its horror. How barbarous the Greeks are, in the Iliad, compared with that beautiful, cultured, artistic civilisation that was Troy. And Western civilisation proudly traces its origin back to those barbarous Greeks rather than something beautiful like the Trojans. We look around us now, and fail to be surprised…
Morse’s delivery, understated yet intense, is pitched to maintain the interest for the 90 minutes of this show. Ultimately, the “translation of atmosphere” for me could not sustain itself for the hour and a half, and I found myself looking at my watch… Homer’s epic consists not only of the frightful death-toll, but also of the strategems, personal vendettas, grudges, political ambitions, and struggles for power that so often lead to war. Leaving all that out effectively removes any sense of plot, so that every pause in the list could be the end of the show.
Imagine the list aria in Don Giovanni taking as long as the whole first act! And even the endless elegies that are Bruckner’s slow movements last for less than half an hour.
Brink Productions presents
by Alice Oswald
Director Chris Drummond
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse | King William Road, Adelaide.
Dates: 1 – 6 March 2018
Tickets: $55 – $67
Bookings: 131246 | adelaidefestival.com.au