Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Faces of war

There’s a plain oak cabinet in the foyer outside the Barbican theatre in one of the spaces used for temporary artworks. It’s the official Iraq war artist and Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen’s 'Queen and Country' commemoration of British service personnel who have been killed in the conflict. Put together in collaboration with 137 families who have lost loved ones in the war, it consists of a series of vertical drawers, each containing a facsimile sheet of stamps featuring photographs of the dead.

It’s an intimate, personalised memorial to some of the many thousands who have died in Iraq, made no less so by the fact that it commemorates casualties from only one party to the conflict. It has been placed in the Barbican, on loan from its permanent home at the Imperial War Museum, to accompany the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, about the famous Scottish regiment and its role in the ‘war on terror’, which opens on 20 June. I came across it after a performance of the Cheek by Jowl production of Troilus and Cressida, which finishes this weekend.

Troilus and Cressida is frequently described as one of Shakespeare’s ‘difficult’ plays, by which is meant that it’s neither straightforward history nor tragedy (nor comedy, for that matter, though there’s as much of that as anything else, particularly in this production). There’s no simple narrative, no orthodox ‘hero’, and Shakespeare seems to undermine every climax with an unsettling shift in focus. Traditionally, critics have seen these as flaws in the play's structure, but taken as a biting satire on war, honour, love and glory, which tends to be the modern interpretation, it certainly packs some punch.

There have been a number of revivals of the play in recent years, including at the National in 1999, ending a long period during which you’d have been pushed to find it performed at all. Cheek by Jowl’s production is up with the best. Helen and Paris are given a Posh and Becks-style treatment, the face that launched a thousand ships prancing about the stage as if for a thousand photo shoots, Paris looking cool in his suit and shades. A bespectacled, semi-stuttering Ulysses gives a sly, bookish interpretation of a character we’re more accustomed to seeing in heroic mode; he fingers Achilles and his lover Patroclus with a set of incriminating photographs.


It’s Richard Cant as Ajax’s slave Thersites who steals the stage, though. Imagine Pete Burns at his bitchy, scouse tranvestite best and you get the idea. ‘I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had the scratching of thee; I would make thee the loathsomest scab in Greece,’ he tells his master as he cleans the set wearing a wig and marigolds. Young Troilus and Cressida weren’t bad either, though maybe just a little too skippy for my liking.


Steve McQueen and The Art Fund have set up a petition asking the Royal Mail to issue the stamps as a memorial to service personnel killed in Iraq. Details here. Interestingly, McQueen says that while the project is neither pro- nor anti-war, 'It seems that for those who are against the war, my project is regarded as a good thing. For people who support the war, it is regarded as a good thing too.' The woman in the stamp featured here is Staff Sergeant Sharron Elliott, died 12 November 2006, aged 34.

1 comment:

David Jones said...

Names and faces personalise war in a way that makes it hard to justify. I'm not surprised the government won't issue the stamps.