March 04, 2018

Ambitious staging brings out the dead in bright unbearable reality

Adelaide Festival

by Alice Oswald
Brink Productions
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
March 2. Tickets $30 – $79.
Bookings 131 246 or online.
Duration: 90 minutes (no interval)
Until March 6.

Alice Oswald’s long poem, Memorial, published in 2011, is well-named. It is elegiac and unforgettable. She calls it an “excavation” and “a kind of oral cemetery.” It is a list of 215 names, taken from Homer’s Iliad, of soldiers who died in the Trojan War. With clinical precision she describes the nature of their wounds and the moment of each death. Oswald says she wanted to capture what the ancients praised in Homer’s epic – its enargeia, its “bright unbearable reality.”

Reducing the original to a grim listicle, Oswald describes her poem as a “translation of The Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story” And in his ambitious staging for Brink Productions, director Chris Drummond has impressively accomplished this with a narrator (Helen Morse), a ten piece consort of musicians, three dancers and a stage chorus of 179 women, men and children ; almost one for each of the war dead in the poem’s spellbinding roll of honour, dishonour and sudden, stark extinction.

Conducting composer Jocelyn Pook’s richly evocative score, Music Director (and counter-tenor) Jonathan Peter Kenny leads a string, quartet, featuring cellist Zoe Barry, Quentin Grant on clarinet and accordion, and three distinctive women vocalists – soprano Kelly McCusker for Oswald’s repeated lyric interpolations, and Belinda Sykes and Tanja Tzarovska singing keening Bulgarian and Macedonian ballads, mournful dirges in the key of Asia Minor.

The Soldier Chorus is Drummond and choreographer, Yaron Lifschitz’s greatest challenge. Managing a large group, even on the expansive stage of the Dunstan Playhouse is not easy. The opening moment, when the curtain rises on Michael Hankin’s elegant set with its high mezzanine for the musicians, is immediately promising. Occupying the entire stage, the chorus lie covered like grave mounds, gently bathed in Nigel Leving’s always sympathetic, often beneficent, side-lighting. It is a striking image and shows the crowd tableau at its best.

As also when they move in circles like the dead in the Underworld, or in the pastoral idylls. Then, they are abundant humanity, living reminders of the now abject war dead. But when the chorus is required to “act”, or the dancers begin some convulsive or decorative movement, the effect is often jarring and the meditative unity undermined.

There can be no reservations about Helen Morse’s performance, however. She is magnificent. Drummond has astutely recognized the dramatic strength of the poet’s text and found an outstanding actor to deliver it. Morse is pitch-perfect.

Droll, laconic, fierce, never sentimental, she effortlessly inhabits this lithe, earthy poetry, giving each line clarity, each name its sombre due. Dressed in a rough-spun mulberry red patchwork shift, she is diminutive in contrast to the chorus but compelling as the narrator, aghast at what she describes, but unflinching witness to this bright unbearable reality.

“Ambitious staging brings out the dead in bright unbearable reality” The Australian, March 5, 2018, p.14.

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