A man, surrounded by a blue glow, falls slowly into what looks like sand. The stage is dark. A woman in red watches him with a solemn expression. Suddenly, 215 bodies turn to their sides on the Barbican stage, revealing that they are, indeed, not sand, but members of several London-based community choruses. This is how Memorial starts, and it truly takes your breath away. Sadly, it might well be the strongest moment of the entire piece.
Alice Oswald wrote an epic, 90 minute long poem, which effectively boils down the Iliad to its core. It is a eulogy to all of those men, women and children who died in Homer’s piece, naming all 215 of them and retelling their deaths, some with more detail than others. This epic poem is delivered with great control and superb presence by Helen Morse, accompanied by live music by Jocelyn Pook and surrounded by what is probably the most impressive element of the show, a huge ensemble.
However, Memorial has a real problem: it is unclear what it’s trying to say, and it focuses on how to say it instead. Granted, seeing this many bodies (and bodies of all shapes and sizes, a refreshing sight on stage) move together in formation is very satisfying. Counter tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny, mezzo soprano Melanie Pappenheim and singers Tanja Tzarovska and Belinda Sykes give a punctual performance of Pook’s music, blending beautifully. The cinematic lighting, the beat of the drums, the running shapes and intense delivery of words about death all urge you to feel the epicness of the piece – which is why you might end up not feeling it.
Sadly, we are never quite sure why are we listening to this endless list of deaths that have little relevance to us. It could be argued that by unrelentingly feeding us information, director Chris Drummond is commenting on how we have become desensitised to death and violence, but the concept falls short when the ideas start to run out and the piece itself introduces trained dancers who seem to be there to spice up the performance. It is a shame, because by incorporating sharply choreographed movement the piece loses what I found the most compelling: using candid bodies that might not know how to move on stage. This untrained presence, this genuine element of the community chorus allows us to just focus on ordinary people, not unlike the people Oswald lists.
With a 90 minute running time the ideas are inevitably recycled and the music becomes repetitive. The more it tries to escalate the more difficult it becomes to connect to its core message and not feel bombarded by the epicness. Nevertheless, the production is truly impressive, and Oswald gives a marathon of a performance. Sadly, the substance is lacking, and much like its many chorus members, Memorial ends up in circles without going anywhere.
‘Memorial’ played at the Barbican until 30 September. For more information, click here.