Claire Calbraith, Simon Harrison and Richard Bremmer. Photo Jonathan Keenan
Reviewed by James Karas
The Last Days of Troy, for the most part, is a fairly faithful and dramatic retelling of the story of The Iliad. Simon Armitage has taken some of the central characters and events of the epic and fashioned an interesting and entertaining play that is now showing at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.
In the midst of the drama and bloodshed of the Trojan War, Armitage has added some humour by transposing Zeus and Hera to the present as tourists to what is left of Troy in Hisalrik, Turkey.
We see the quarrel between Agamemnon (David Birrell) and Achilles (Jake Fairbrother). Agamemnon is presented as an arrogant blowhard with more ego and bluster than military ability or leadership qualities. Achilles is full of rage and he is rightly described as a one-man genocide. Odysseus (Colin Tierney) is crafty, intelligent and diplomatic. He has what most of the other Greeks lack.
As in The Iliad, the Trojans get better press. Hector (Simon Harrison) is heroic, his wife Andromache (Clare Calbraith) is a tragic figure and Priam (Garry Cooper) is humane and realistic. Paris (Tom Stuart) is a handsome but cowardly wastrel who prefers Helen’s bed to the battlefield.
The ten-year war is about Helen (Lily Cole) who is very pretty and each one of us has to decide whether she is the whore of Paris or the abducted wife of Menelaus.
Lily Cole as Helen. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
Armitage and the production directed by Nick Bagnall do not shy away from the violence and bloodshed so graphically described by Homer. In The Iliad, after killing Hector, Achilles offers dreadful indignity to the body by fastening it to his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. In the play, the raging Achilles stabs the corpse mercilessly and falls on it like an animal, drinks its blood and eats its flesh. You do not want Achilles to get angry with you. He does show humanity by returning Hector’s corpse to his father Priam.
Armitage does not give us only blood and butchery. He includes the ever-present gods of The Iliad but mostly for humour. The play opens in present-day Hisalrik with Zeus selling souvenirs and trinkets. He is henpecked by his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) on earth and in heaven and gets little respect from his daughters Athene (Francesca Zoutewelle) and Thetis (Clare Calbraith). He does get a lot of laughs.
The Iliad ends with the funeral rites for Hector. There is no Wooden Horse and in fact the war is not finished. Armitage has decided to round off the story with the appearance of the Wooden Horse, the burning of Troy and the slaughter of all the men and children. The women are taken into slavery.
Unfortunately his writing becomes creaky as he moves away from the story of the epic and tries to round off the plot with a satisfactory ending. The play could have ended where The Iliad ends which in its way is a satisfactory conclusion.
Aside from that, The Last Days of Troy paints a horrific picture of war and human suffering. The soldiers have their faces covered, the stage is draped in black and the scenes are reminiscent of what we see on the news today.
Although the gods are held to mild ridicule, the emphasis of the play and the production is on the horrors of war. There is no attempt to engage the audience in the type of humour produced in original practices productions of Shakespeare.
Armitage starts with Homer and ends up with his own play. Shakespeare’s Globe provides us with a very fine evening at the theatre.