Memorial at the Barbican
The set is black, the orchestra plays a melancholy melody and, as the lights start to brighten, we notice a woman in a red dress surrounded by lifeless bodies. The lights get brighter and the bodies lift one arm towards the sky. “The first to die was Himilaus,” she says, before describing one of the many death scenes in Homer’s Iliad.
Do you know how many people die in the Iliad? There are enough to fill one hour and forty-five minutes. Memorial combines music, interpretive dance and narration (courtesy of Helen Morse) to describe the battles from Homer’s legendary war story. Morse gives a strong performance; her descriptions of the deaths drip with emotion, making us care about these long-dead fictional characters. She is also the only person who speaks in this play and somehow manages to talk for almost two hours without losing her voice.
The set is simple; the stage floor is covered in patchy grass, the upper level holds the orchestra and the costume choices help Morse stand out, as all the backing performers are dressed in pale-coloured modern dress. The most impressive set choice accompanies a description of the ocean: a large, dark sheet of material transforms into a wave-ridden sea and is complemented by blue lighting. Three performers add to the illusion by crawling across the “sea” with zombie-like movements.
The music – a combination of classical instruments, choir-like singing and deep, almost satanic effects – is powerful, the interpretive dance is simple but effective. Morse is a great narrator, but it is the constant movement – even if it’s as simple as 30-odd performers pacing across the stage or forming a circle around her – that stops our attention wondering.
Memorial describes scenes from Homer’s poem, but at one point performers dressed as First World War soldiers enter the stage to remind us that this is about more than fantasy conflicts; it is about all war. The deaths of young, often naïve men on the battlefield can relate to the Great War just as much as it relates to Troy.
The idea of spending an evening listening to all the Iliad’s death scenes played out with music and movement might not seem to be everyone’s cup of tea. However, this is a unique performance that will transport each viewer to an ancient yet always relevant battlefield, backed by an orchestra of exceptional musicians. Memorial is a show that should be seen.
Photo: Shane Reid
Memorial is at the Barbican from 27th until 30th September 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Memorial here: