Brink Productions debuted Memorial at the Adelaide Festival for performances from 1-6 March 2018. The production came to the Barbican, London, 27-30 September 2018.
In 1940 Simone Weil declared that ‘The true hero, the true subject of the Iliad, is force’ (Weil, Besplaoff, McCarthy 2005), directing us to interpret the poem’s protagonist as mēnis (rage). The power of Weil’s reading is to strip away the focus on character and urge us to appreciate the poem’s structuring and destructive tendencies. Alice Oswald takes up the baton from Weil in Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (2011), her poetic to the Iliad. Oswald turns away from the thundering and galloping and raging and squabbling of the main Greek and Trojan heroes. In an extraordinary formal experiment, Memorial asks with Simone Weil, “what would it look like to read the Iliad without Achilles?”
Oswald’s answer is altogether less austere and relentlessly form-focused than Weil’s. Memorial seeks to commemorate the nameless and the barely mentioned, the 215 fallen men that Homer skims by and whose sole claim to posthumous fame might lie at the business end of Diomedes’ spear, or an inglorious spew of brains on that windy Trojan plain through which Achilles stomps, or the barely logical narrative hook from which hangs an abundant Homeric simile. Oswald describes her processing of the Iliad as ‘an attempt to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, to take away its narrative, as you might rip the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping’ (Oswald, 2011, ix). She is also highly aware that junking most of the plot and the focus on the main heroes constitutes ‘a reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’ (Oswald, 2011, x). Oswald’s poetic sensibility is both tender and rock-and-roll, eyeing up eternity and the bright immediate now – in other words, anachronistic.
Oswald’s insistence on the humanity of each individual that she can recoup from the Homeric poem radically reshapes the kind of poem she offers as a response to the Iliad. It also reshapes the form of the Brink Productions recent performance of Memorial. Demurring from merely cataloguing the dead, in the manner that Homer gathers ships, or Hesiod women, Oswald toggles between creating biography and simile for each man and his death, a ‘bi-polar’ mode. Her invented biographical details are agonizingly specific: see for example, ‘Polydorus… who loved running/ now somebody has to tell his father/ That exhausted man leaning on the wall/ looking for his favourite son’ (Oswald, 2011, 64). And make no mistake, Oswald is an excellent reader of Homer – I snorted out loud at the epithet “neurotic” for Cassandra.
Particularity is precisely what is squeezed out of the Iliad for these men – there simply is no room for such mass of detail in a narrative in which the hot and heavy stirrings of the Hero (capital H)’s heart must be carefully tracked. Oswald’s procedure has a paradoxical effect – to individualize and restore humanity to hundreds of men, but in doing so, rendering the crowd of soldiers the protagonist of the poem. In this production, a non-professional group of volunteer men, women, and children form the chorus, drawn from local London community choirs and theatre groups. This chorus plays out the destruction of the city, the men who die, and even the Trojan plain itself – the play starts in darkness with a field of bodies peeling themselves up from the floor. Later, the chorus forms the din of battle (not unlike the stock footage of city streets that accompanies news reports on television, or murmurations of starlings, with clear internal logic and patterns that can only be appreciated by an onlooker). Homer’s similes do a lot of work to imagine worlds full of sympathetic and sensuous connections – it is quite another thing to see a river of bodies literalized as the Scamander, or a crowd of two hundred people gather round and form the walls of Troy.
Oswald does not entirely eschew the Iliadic plot – there are obvious moments that re-create episodes such as Odysseus and Diomedes’ (textually and ethically dubious) night time raid on the camp of Rhesus in Iliad Book Ten. Not focusing on Achilles’ rage or the politicking of the Greek kings or the Trojan princes means that Oswald is able to lay bare their brutality, stripping back the presentation of Agamemnon to a commander who showed no mercy to a defenseless and naked young man who begged for his life.
This production chooses to linger on Hector’s death, as Memorial does, with significant change from the final books of the Iliad. Instead of the formality of ransoming of Hector’s body and the citywide mourning for the hero’s final journey home, the last we see of him in this production is (a character that we can assume is) Andromache, awkwardly dragging her husband’s much larger body off stage. It is a quietly powerful rebuttal to the endgame of Achilles’ rage, produced by the radical de-centering of character and plot.
Helen Morse, grande dame of the Australian stage, performed the only speaking role, a modern rhapsode who was capable of communicating each soldier’s brief moment in the spotlight with gravitas and empathy. An older female Homeric narrator on stage, in the long tradition of contesting Homer’s gender (see Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey, 1897) as well as in the more recent controversy caused by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey (2017), was a canny move in the context of Oswald’s investigation of the conceptual motor of the Iliad.
Morse’s tremendous performance compelled Memorial on, keeping compassion fatigue at bay and interest high – she spoke continuously for nearly two hours, tracing lives that flashed for a moment, lamenting and making each grief anew. (Not rendering lament monotonous is a feat in itself – I remember feeling numb at Juliette Binoche’s relentless Antigone, performed at the same theatre a few years ago). It is astonishing to hear the powerful roll call of the dead, carefully named, each death mourned as an individual loss.
Oswald’s memorializing procedure is passionately humanizing – to that end, it feels as though it could be a memorial for all time, or for every moment that we need reminding that war is the worst manifestation of human power. The gloss of the eternal has the potential to reduce Oswald’s poem to a solemn exercise in commemoration. Brink Productions opted for two particularizing strategies that chip away at this sense of timelessness, to drag Memorial into historical and geographical specificity.
The first is Jocelyn Pook’s achingly beautiful score, using mainly two singers from Bulgaria and Macedonia, along with oboe, clarinets, brass and shawm, a medieval woodwind instrument. Director Chris Drummond at one point called this production of Memorial an “oratorio” – the evocative blend of word and song was distilled in the geographical and cultural specificity of using Balkan women’s lamenting voices.
If this production of Memorial pinned itself down in place to great effect, its temporal unpinning worked well too. About two thirds of the way through, soldiers dressed in World War One uniforms appear, dotted through the crowd, conspicuous in khaki among the chorus dressed in light, contemporary style, loose clothes. It was just a moment and more heavy-handed direction would have visually emphasized the connection between the mythological and historical wars. The point of not doing this, I take it, is not to bewail the pity of war in a facile way. Rather, Brink Productions’ handling of their commission to contribute to WWI commemorations layers over the universal significance of Memorial with the gentle insistence that that those who died in between 1914 and 1918 will fade from living memory too, their specific contours will blur, and they too will need commemorations that seek particularity. Faced with the anachronistic community of the war dead for just a moment, Brink Productions showed us a glimpse of the un/timeliness, as well as the deep compassion, that moves under memory.
- Butler, S. (1897) The Authoress of the Odyssey (London &c.)
- Oswald, A., (2011) Memorial (London: Faber)
- Weil, S., Bespaloff, S. (2005) [1945, 1947] War and the Iliad translated by Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review of Books).
- Wilson, E. R. (trans.) (2018) The Odyssey (New York: W.W. Norton)