Roberts and Jóhannsson: Now the Hero (Concert Review - The Guardian, 2018)

Remembrance is not enough.” These stark words, hurled through a megaphone from a bridge that looks out over the expanse of Swansea Bay, set the tone for this three-hour epic. From the opening moments as three soldiers – a Celtic warrior, a first world war officer and a modern soldier in camouflage – land on the sandy beach, Marc Rees’s Now the Hero/Nawr yr Arwr combines the histories of the 20th century’s two world wars with the seventh-century battle memorialised in the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin. The poem’s opening line, “Gwyr a aeth Catraeth” (“Men went warring to Catraeth [Catterick, North Yorkshire]”), becomes the mantra-like refrain throughout, as the phrase had for David Jones’s poem In Parenthesis.

This immense piece of immersive, promenade-style theatre was commissioned by 14-18 Now to mark the end of the war that was supposed to end all wars. It takes its audience from shore to street and into Brangwyn Hall, where Sir Frank Brangwyn’s flamboyant decorative panels were commissioned – but then rejected – by the House of Lords to commemorate the 1914-18 war. As the panels fulfil their original purpose, the floor is depicted as one great, red killing field of bloody entrails into whose trenches young soldiers slowly fall.

Their requiem is intoned by Stephen Layton’s Polyphony, composer Owen Morgan Roberts completing a collaboration begun with Jóhan Jóhannsson before the latter’s death in February. Setting words by Owen Sheers, who echoes the medieval poet, as well as Wilfred Owen and David Jones, this organic connection of the choral material with the overall electronic soundscape is a binding element.

Yet, against the images of war and its foot soldiers, the heroine of the night is Eddie Ladd’s peace protester, clad in a Greenham Common boiler suit. Her slight but dynamic presence threads its way through the action, never more breathtaking than harnessed and walking down the vertical drop of the Brangwyn Hall’s central exterior tower. In a series of thought-provoking tableaux, this could risk seeming a stunt, but it is the single image that more powerfully calls to mind this emphatic statement against the futility of war.