Lest we forget: Memorial remembers soldiers long gone

Collaborating with a team of remarkable international and national talent, Brink Theatre’s Chris Drummond is set to expose a crucial, yet long-ignored piece of Homer’s Iliad as he brings Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial to life on stage.

While interpretations of Homer’s ancient Iliad are plentiful in the history of art and literature, in Memorial TS Elliot Prize-winning poet Alice Oswald has found a unique and relatable approach to the tale. Rather than discuss the heroes, kings and gods of the epic tale, Oswald’s poem, and Brink Productions’ show, focusses on individual soldiers – and their loved ones – to remember people long forgotten.

“She describes it as a translation of the atmosphere of the Iliad, an ‘oral cemetery’,” Drummond says of Oswald’s text. “What she’s done is stripped the Iliad of its narrative, its heroes, god and battle between Agamemnon and Achilles. All of that stuff’s gone, and the poem basically takes you into the moment of death of every solider, and in that moment of death – which is often described in vivid, violent detail – she’ll  telescope back through time to their memory of when they left their homeland, or forward to the moment that their widow learns of their death.”

As Memorial’s director Drummond is clearly enamoured with the source text, describing its power, prose and ability to simultaneously convey the trials of just one person in the scheme of the universe.

“It’s really hard to remind yourself about the individuals that have gone off to war, and also get the scale,” he says. “That’s the amazing thing about the text, where she’s gotten absolutely up close and also epically vast, like all-time from the Big Bang, to the end of the universe, but we’re just this blip.”

Chris Drummond (photo: Sia Duff)

How does one translate a poem of such scale to the stage? Drummond has enlisted the services of celebrated actor Helen Morse, composer Jocelyn Pook, choreographer Yaron Lifschitz and more than 200 locals to portray this epic tale of woe. He says that working with such esteemed talent has been an inspiring experience, and the end product is of a majestic nature.

Morse plays “the cypher, the storyteller, the Homer” remembering these deaths, which are scored by Pook with music that Drummond describes having an “incredible, ancient yet contemporary” feel. Those dead soldiers, their families and the general tide of humanity are portrayed by the hundreds of cast members, choreographed by Lifschitz.

“It will be visually spectacular, and the idea is to put a person on stage for every soldier named, then there are 10 musicians and Jocelyn Pook has scored the show so about 85 per cent of the time there’s music… It is a series of vignettes in one way, in that you’re taken into a particular set of stories and that will have its particular atmosphere and look, then that will disappear but you’ll be left somewhere completely different and the stories continue.”

Stories of the souls forgotten by the ravages of war and time seem appropriate in 2018, 100 years on from the end of World War 1. Indeed, Adelaide Festival’s program contains no fewer than six stories about war this year. Drummond says the link is clear, but that he doesn’t intend to limit this story only to one conflict.

“We want the audience to be conscious of that, but we don’t want to be just about World War 1,” he says. “You know, they said that that was the war to end all wars, yet of course it wasn’t true. Only something as epic of the Iliad can even encapsulate WWI and go beyond it because it’s one of the great texts about war in human history.”


Choreographer Yaron Lifschitz working on Memorial’s development in 2017 (photo: Chris Herzfeld)

Nor is this the first time Drummond and Brink have tackled the subject of war, having staged Long Tan last year in collaboration with State Theatre Company of South Australia, though he distinguishes the two pieces from each other quite clearly.

“Where Long Tan was more verbatim, and the direct words of people who are still alive retelling their stories, this is the opposite. These soldiers are gone and have no way of telling us what it was like to live and die in that way… Like World War 1, it’s moved from the received experience that Vietnam still is, more into being the myth because there’s nobody alive with a direct connection to it.

“It’s what theatre does that no other art form does. When all the elements come together you can re-meet something from another time and it’s like it’s alive again for the first time. You put all of these things together, these stories, and you’re bringing them back to life for a moment, that transitory moment of a shape and nature of a particular human being.”

Drummond says that the show will be an emotional ride for the audience, but refutes the idea that it will be anything like long, dark slog through the trenches of war.

“It’s intense, but there are moments of humour and lots of beauty. The music is absolutely extraordinary and the images that we’ve managed to create are amazing, and it’s very emotional. It’s not light comedy or farce or anything like that. It’s a Festival work, a major work.”

Memorial
Dunstan Playhouse
Thursday, March 1 to Tuesday, March 6
adelaidefestival.com.au

Header image: Helen Morse in Memorial

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