Marathon by Alan Fielden with JAMS

Two years ago, during my undergraduate degree, I had the privilege of being taught playwriting by someone whose passion was inspirational. He encouraged us to be experimental, unorthodox and ourselves. Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing his work. Alongside his theatre group, JAMS, Alan Fielden was this year’s winner of the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award. From this, came Marathon.

With Marathon, Fielden and JAMS adapt the tale of a messenger running across Greece to declare victory in war into a genre-defying odyssey of futility, absurdity and condemnation. The message is changed and politically charged: the war not won, but lost.

Drawing from Brechtian tradition – a phrase I only know because of Alan – the performers, trapped within the cyclic nature of war, fail to remember the parts they play. They drift through fragments of conflicts long passed, long forgotten, and falsely recalled; they become soldiers, victims and directors – bit-parts in someone else’s narrative.

Throughout, the work shifts seamlessly from humour to horror as Marathon critiques conflict in all its guises. Executions, shelling, patriotism and mercy killings: all are  masterfully presented to the point of excess. Death becomes a fact, corpses glamourised, yet we are told not to dwell.

The satire is scathing. We are told not to dwell because our society does not. Atrocities shock us before being buried under the weight of another, and conflict is treated as occasional, not ongoing. It is hard not to feel resonances with gun crime in the US or war in the Middle East.

As the conclusion nears, in one of the piece’s most moving sequences, the messenger pleads desperately to anyone who will listen to wake up to war. But all is lost to absurdity. Communication fails again and again under the weight of self-imposed ignorance and consumable distractions.

I adored Marathon. It was my first real taste of what theatre can be: unconventional and thought-provoking; at once provocative and joyful. I also imagine it will mean many things to many people. Whilst the narrative I took was anti-war, Marathon is layered to the extent that meaning becomes individual.

In the end, what remains is what began: a stage strewn with bullets and guns. The play is played out, still it plays on. War is played out, still it plays on.