Review: Memorial

Recounting the deaths of hundreds of soldiers in Homer’s Iliad, Memorial is an intense examination of the wastes inherent in war.

“But that was long ago….he’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years,” recites actor Helen Morse, as she peers over a mass of bodies—men and women, old and young—laying on the stage around her, scattered like corn stalks across a field. Morse delivers this reference to corn stalks in a raspy, powerful register; and the mass suddenly awakens, raising their right arms towards the sky.

It is a vivid beginning to an old tale—Morse is reciting Alice Oswald’s long-form poem Memorial, a reworking of Homer’s epic Iliad. The dream-like opening sequence, evoking cornfields on a sad morning after battle, harkens to Pablo Neruda’s words in Song for the Mothers of Slain Militiamen:

“…know that your dead ones smile from the earth
raising their fists above the wheat.”

But where Neruda’s tone is proud and hopeful — commemorating the achievements of anti-fascist soldiers — Oswald’s is somber and despairing, quietly condemning the futility and folly of human wars. Sitting in the theatre, listening to this ancient story, we’re reminded that the brutal slaughter of humans is an endlessly common occurrence in our history.

Accompanying Morse’s recitation is sparse but highly-effective scenography — above the stage, a 10-person orchestra performs strange and melancholy sounds, the lighting fixes moments of death (dawn, dusk, night), and stage extras skillfully metamorphosize into the world around us — corn stalks, empty fields, a rushing stream.

Micro-eulogies are delivered for ancient characters, their deaths preserved in quick bursts of verse. Though this technique is effective in summoning the size of the tragedy, there is something lacking. We meet each soldier fleetingly and as countless deaths are recited, each one blurs and fades into the other, beginning to tug too much at sentimentality.

It is undoubtedly well-written, well-acted, and well-produced. There is a delicate rage in the waste of life, and beauty in this muted anger. But the relentless roll-call of death slowly wears at the viewer, itself mirroring the endless and repetitive nature of war.

Memorial was performed at the Dunstan Playhouse on Friday, March 2 and continues until March 6.

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