War Correspondents, Stratford Circus

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Helen Chadwick and her team have been keen to avoid the word “musical” in talking about their latest piece. You can see why. The grim realities of war don’t really lend themselves to toe-tapping and jazz hands. Of course, the musical form is capable of much more than silliness and schmaltz, but there is an atmosphere of meticulous care that surrounds this project, right down to the precision of the language used to describe it. As the journalists at its centre know, words are important.

Six years in the making, War Correspondents is an ambitious, wide-ranging piece of work. The performance consists of 29 songs, all crafted from the words of correspondents interviewed by Chadwick and from various poems on the subject of war. Taking in numerous conflicts, its focus is war in general rather than any one war in particular, while the subject of war reporters allows an examination both of conflict itself and its impacts locally and globally. We see the devastation and casualties on the ground, as well as the headlines around the world and the lasting psychological damage on those who bear witness.

But how do you represent something as destructive, as relentless and as complex as war? War Correspondents’ answer to that question is to highlight all of those qualities, refusing to make neat sense out of the material it is working with. Rather than following an elegant narrative arc, the action rises and falls. Hostilities escalate and melt away. Attempts to impose logic are confounded by often seemingly meaningless flashes of violence and brutality. And like war – to adopt one of the phrases used by war correspondent and interviewee Chris Stephen in the post-show Q&A – it slowly bleeds out, refusing the closure of a clear, conclusive end point.

This can make it occasionally difficult to watch. With little but the central thematic thread to tie the succession of songs together, the show has a tendency to meander – aptly, of course, but in a way that challenges the concentration of viewers. Chadwick’s music, meanwhile, is as slippery as her subject matter. While beautiful and haunting, it offers little to grasp onto, with melodies that swell and dissolve like the dramatic action. This all takes place against the virtually unchanging backdrop of Miriam Nabarro’s simple yet evocative design, suggestive of the constant cycle of conflict, as are Steven Hoggett’s understated, repetitive movements.

Though they might require a certain quality of concentration, the songs themselves grapple with an impressive array of issues, from the morally uncertain position of the bystander to the consequences of what is and isn’t said. There is not just one shade of grey here but many. What we get less of is what compels these journalists to do what they do in the first place. In the post-show discussion, Stephen guiltily confesses that part of it is the thrill of being in a warzone, an aspect of this picture that it would have been interesting to see explored further.

But perhaps that is an unreasonable criticism. The point is that a piece like this can never encompass the full, terrifying scope of war – or even one single facet of it. And Chadwick and her team are well aware of that. Instead, War Correspondents offers a rich texture of overlapping voices, a cacophony that echoes the noisy, complex, multi-layered nature of war itself.

Lovesong, Lyric Hammersmith

The past may be a foreign country, but we sure like travelling there. In the latest production from Frantic Assembly, past and present share the stage in a tender tearjerker about love, time and memory.

The story itself is seductively simple. An old married couple, Billy and Maggie, are nearing the end of their time together as Maggie’s health steadily deteriorates. Meanwhile they are consumed by the shadows of their younger selves that dance – quite literally – through their home. Through these memories, we are introduced to the couple at the beginning of their marriage, following them from honeymoon glow to the appearance of the first cracks in their relationship. We learn that they have emigrated together to the States, where Billy sets up a dentistry practice and they wait for children that stubbornly refuse to come.

By intertwining the lives of this couple at different ages, playwright Abi Morgan (the prolific writer-of-the moment behind The Hour and The Iron Lady among others) is able to give us a fairly comprehensive picture of their marriage. This is no idyllic portrait of perfect love; we see Billy and Maggie bicker and fight, we experience their frustration at their childlessness and witness them both momentarily waver when faced with the temptation of adultery. But we also see how, in old age, they have come to rely on one another in a marriage that has ultimately survived through the years.

Morgan’s script is brought beautifully and captivatingly to the stage by Frantic Assembly, who unite evocative movement with stunning sound and design. Under the direction of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, Billy and Maggie’s past and present selves collide, embrace, dance and separate, all to Carolyn Downing’s moving soundtrack. In one standout moment, the present-day Maggie, heartbreakingly played by Siân Phillips, tries on a treasured pair of shoes from her youth and stumbles through the house. The emotional effect is little short of devastating.

There is no doubt about it, this is meant to make us cry. Frantic Assembly’s production, helped along by an outstanding cast, is unapologetically manipulative, working on our collective tear-ducts with nimble, tender touches until the audience is reduced to a symphony of sniffles. Morgan has cannily tapped into fears that assail us all; we weep not just for Billy and Maggie, but for the inevitability of our own demise and that of our loved ones. Yet, for all that it tugs delicately on the emotions, I can’t help but wish that Lovesong was a little less insistent on leaving its spectators damp-faced.

When not pulling mercilessly at the heartstrings, Lovesong raises some fascinating questions. Far from being merely a eulogy on a love story that is at its imminent end, Morgan’s play prods at some of the deeper concerns that ripple through our existence. How, for instance, do we create our own legacy? As Billy contemplates the end, the optimism of his youth all faded, the only marker of his life seems likely to be his perfectly maintained set of gnashers. The young Maggie’s imagination, meanwhile, is captured by the cave drawings left behind by early humans – drawings that she and Billy later run their hands over together, imprinting these pre-historic images with the story of their own love.

But by far the most intriguing theme to thread through Billy and Maggie’s story is that of time and its linearity or otherwise. The intersection of past and present, while primarily redolent of the potency of memory, asks inherent questions about our conception of time, questions that arise again when Billy introduces different theories of time. Are our lives really lived along a straight line, or is time far more complex than we could imagine? These are ideas that, mirroring Graham and Hoggett’s haunting choreography, are repeatedly caressed and skimmed over, but that this production ultimately loses grasp of.

There is no shame in a piece of theatre about love and death – two of life’s few universal certainties – and especially a piece of theatre that handles these themes as deftly as Lovesong does. Tears, however, have an unfortunate tendency to blur the vision, obscuring the lighter nuances of what Morgan is saying. Exquisitely moving though it may be, in the wake of this strong tide of emotion emerges a yearning for something slightly more clear-sighted.

Lovesong runs at Lyric Hammersmith until 4 February.

Image: Johan Persson