As Alice Oswald began to perform her poem, Memorial, a dramatic and unique translation of Homer’s Iliad, she drew in her awed audience with the strength of her voice and the power of her words.
Introducing her poem modestly, she described it simply as “a list of names and lives of men who died in the Trojan war.” Far from being a monotonous and sombre-toned roll of obituaries, the elegy was kept well and truly alive with beautiful and vivid imagery. Each of Oswald’s elaborate similes stunned the audience, capturing their imaginations and leading them away. The poem was very moving. Oswald grieved for the dead men, speaking with controlled emotion, her tone both authoritative and tender. This amalgamation of sadness and beauty formed an electric atmosphere within the theatre.
I felt, personally, as if I were being spoken to directly and I imagine everyone else sat perched on the edges of their seats, felt similarly. Oswald held a wide-eyed, engaging expression, which allowed her, from the very first line of the poem, to break away the barrier between the stage and the audience, creating a surprising sense of intimacy.
Throughout the ‘reading’, her eyes didn’t so much as flicker down to the notes placed on her lectern. Instead, the book-length, Memorial, was recited from memory. This remarkable feat was executed perfectly. Her unblemished performance conveyed a real dedication to each of the words she spoke.
Impressed, the audience appeared desperate not to miss a single syllable of Oswald’s flawless performance which fell on my ears as a blend of storytelling and enchanting music. Half way through, I finally tore my eyes away from Alice Oswald’s magnetic face and noticed that she was tapping her left foot gently and discreetly, in order to keep in time – fashioning her own anatomical metronome. This seemed to reinforce in me the fact that I really was watching a master of her craft at work. I listened in wonder.
The overall intensity of the performance was no doubt heightened dramatically by the fact that the poem was recited without an interval. I realised, however, as I sat through the seventy-five minutes of Memorial, that although I had, to begin with, been eagerly absorbing Oswald’s words, my attention had begun to fade towards the very end. My interest in the poem remained as strong as before, but the act of following the poem’s narrative and intricate imagery required constant focus and concentration which was waning after such a long time. As Oswald formed her last glittering simile, however, and punched out the final words of the poem, “And then it’s gone,” I felt a stab of disappointment that it was over.
Memorial, was a truly memorable and completely unique performance. I urge anyone with a love of words to go and experience and be memorised by Alice Oswald’s recital.