Memorial and human requiem (Adelaide Festival)

Michael Morley Friday, 23 March 2018
Published in ABR Arts

If one were tempted to cast round for a theme or a set of motifs that could be discerned from this year’s Adelaide Festival, it might be Rilke’s ‘Who speaks of victory? To endure/survive is all.’ Not as a default position, but as a celebration of those left behind, of those who tell the stories of those who have struggled and, in some, cases, survived; in others, alas, not.

Brink’s staging/enactment/translation into musical, visual and theatrical terms of Alice Oswald’s great poem Memorial (2011) (★★★★) encompasses both the elegiac and the celebratory in its approach to conveying and expanding on the world of the original. The book-length poem, as its author indicates, is an attempt to translate not the story but the atmosphere of the Iliad, seeking to retrieve what she, along with ancient critics, referred to as the work’s ‘energeia’.

Director Chris Drummond, in one of his most daring choices, ‘populates the stage with a man, woman or child’ for every dead soldier named in Homer’s epic: there are 215. And the basic feat of remembering each and every name is not the least of the stellar qualities of Helen Morse’s solo performance as narrator and involved storyteller. By comparison, memorising a large Shakespearean role would seem just a stroll round The Globe. In Morse’s delivery, which, seemingly effortlessly, catches the often complex imagery and patterns of repetition, along with the vivid and cruel reality of the depiction of the combatants’ death, Oswald’s world springs into life in all its savagery and lyrical immediacy.

At one moment prowling the stage like a lost prophet, at another adopting the manner of a maternal storyteller addressing a seated group of children, at another embodying the horrified demeanour of both an onlooker and a participant, she hands the text to the audience as if it were a series of tableaux carved in words. All the while she is moving through the bodies that occupy the space, sometimes static, occasionally, it has to be said, distractingly over-mobile.

The idea of having all the bodies of the 215 dead appear on stage is translated brilliantly in the opening image, as the lights come up on what looks like massed mounds of clothing, filling the stage and the audience’s imagination. As they begin to stir and come to (theatrical) life, the scale of the poem and the story we will experience hits home with visceral yet haunting effect.

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On the other hand, when the chorus begins trailing across the stage in never-ending, intersecting lines, the movement can seem both distracting and unnecessary. But there are other, wonderful compensations: a line of seemingly disembodied heads caught in the light and strung across the entire width of the stage; the small groups of figures used to embody moments in the poem that cry out for their visual equivalent; the juxtaposition of the individual (Morse) with the crowd, along with the fragmentation.

Perched above it all, in a wide yet not high sectioned space, running the width of the stage, is the wonderful orchestra, under the excellent Jonathan Peter Kenny, who, along with the exceptional Macedonian singer Tanja Tzarovska, also offers some standout countertenor contributions. Jocelyn Pook’s score has been criticised in some quarters for its simplicity and approachability; but its modal character, and the clever deployment of instrumental colour, struck this listener as entirely in keeping with the mood of the staging and of the poem itself.

Memorial Actor Helen Morse1 AF 2018 Credit Shane Reid
Helen Morse in Memorial (Brink Productions) at the 2018 Adelaide Festival
(photograph by Shane Reid)

The text, in its recurrent use of simile, swirls ‘like snow falling’; the performers gaze upwards, gently moving back and forth; a solo cello, with a pulsating chorus in the background, laments; the dactyls of the repeated ‘When water makes way for the wind’ hover in the air. Moments like these are theatrical magic.

Which indeed, was one of the other standout features of the Festival, notably in The Far Side of the Moon, and realised to unforgettable effect in the Rundfunkchor Berlin’s re-imagination and recreation of Brahms’ German Requiem (1865–68) – human requiem (★★★★★). Staged by Jochen Sandig, Sasha Waltz & Guests, conducted by Gijs Leenaars, sung by the massed choral voices, and accompanied by Philip Mayers and Angela Gassenhuber in a brilliant arrangement for four-hand piano, this performance stands out as one of the defining musical experiences of my forty years as a Festival-goer and reviewer.

Never can George Bernard Shaw’s characterisation of the work as ‘[coming] from the establishment of a first-class undertaker’ have seemed so far off the mark. And one would like to think that if Shaw had had the good fortune to experience this clear, direct, powerful, lyrical, pared-back, deeply moving account of the work, emphatically acknowledging its composer’s admiration for Bach, he might have modfied his view of both its musical language and its communicative power.

What could have been empty gimmickry, with the singers scattered throughout the large space of the Ridley Centre, indistinguishable in clothing and appearance from the audience members themselves (who had to remove their shoes and bags, and wear ‘comfortable clothing’), became, from the ravishing opening notes, an experience of community, connection, identification and celebration. All high-sounding words, I know. But to find oneself standing so close to the singers, each one of whose command of tone, pitch, and clarity of diction was exemplary, and feeling the immediacy of the human voice and of Brahms’s sublime matching of text and music, was an experience nobody there, I suggest, will ever forget. Certainly not to judge by the extended ovation, whistling, stamping, and warm embraces that the audience shared with the performers at the music’s end.

Too many magical – yes, and transcendent and transforming – moments to catch in words. But just the choreographing and moving of the chorus, now from spot to spot, now massed at one end of the space, now moving quietly (all the while singing) through the seated or standing crowd, was an exemplary demonstration of how to embody music in space and through sound. In the second section of the work (‘All flesh is as grass’), the singers gradually moved through the audience and the space before coming together at one side of the space as a conventionally positioned choir, standing over and beside a rectangular space at floor level, in which lay one of the female singers, on a bed of sand/rice. And when they reached the climax of that section, the power and range of their voices was overwhelming – to be followed by the quiet closing moments of the passage, where other members of the chorus stooped and gently, lightly scattered the grains into the audience, in an equivalent to the text’s ‘Pain and sighing will have to yield’.

human requiem 07c Matthias Heyde
human requiem at the 2018 Adelaide Festival (photograph by Matthias Heyde)

As a visual commentary on the celebratory and reassuring assertions of the fourth section (‘How lovely are thy dwelling places, o Lord of Hosts’), the singers loosened six swings slung from the ceiling, seated themselves in them, and soared lightly to and fro next to and slightly above the crowd, before soprano Christina Jarnot became both vocal and swing (though not in the American musical theatre sense) soloist for her entire segment.

In stylised expressionist lines, the choir rocked back and forth for ‘Death, where is thy sting’, crowded round the piano at other moments, and, for the conclusion, unobtrusively organised the entire audience to seat themselves on the floor in the centre of the space before singing antiphonally across them from the ends of the hall and, finally surrounding us on all four sides.

human requiem 16 c Matthias Heyde
human requiem at the 2018 Adelaide Festival (photograph by Matthias Heyde)

If all this sounds mechanical and regimented, nothing could be further from the truth. Blame the writer, not the performers or the director. Never was the old adage ‘one picture – or in this case, line of music – is worth a thousand words’ more appropriate. This was a brilliantly imaginative, totally musical, tribute to, and unsurpassable realisation of, the human, consolatory, and communal essence of Brahms’s masterpiece.

Memorial (Brink Productions) was performed at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre 2–6 March 2018 (performance attended: 2 March) and human requiem was performed the Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showground 14–18 March (performance attended: 14 March).

ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.

2018 film survey

Published in ABR Arts
Michael Morley

Michael Morley

Michael Morley is Emeritus Professor of Drama at Flinders University. He has written theatre and music reviews and articles for a variety of publications, including Theatre Australia, the National Times, The Australian, the Australian Financial Review, Opera News (New York), the Kurt Weill Newsletter, the Sondheim Review, the Adelaide Review, and Australian Book Review. He has also contributed translations for the English edition of the collected poems of Alfred Brendel.

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