Writer: Simon Armitage
Director: Nick Bagnall
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The Royal Exchange has high hopes for The Last Days of Troy. Simon Armitage’s re-telling of the Trojan War legend transfers to The Globe in London after its Manchester run. The production features a large cast supplemented by local volunteers who swell battle scenes and achieve rapid changes.
Armitage, and director Nick Bagnall, treat the source material with respect while bringing out aspects of contemporary relevance. The play assesses both the Trojan War and the Greek Gods from a modern viewpoint. However, although his script is lyrical Armitage crams in so much incident, rather than focus upon specific plot threads, that the play feels like a series of excerpts from an epic rather than a cohesive whole.
Ashley Martin-Davis clothes the Greek invaders in dark functional costumes reflecting modern, rather than ancient, warfare and only the Trojans are allowed any brightness in their clothes. Parallels with modern conflicts are drawn through the use of phrases like ‘Task Force’ and ‘Big Push’; and the suggestion that Helen is no more than a human Trojan Horse –used to justify invasion and the confiscation of a defeated opponent’s resources.
Bagnall draws out the fury of the conflict with brutal fight scenes, thunderous sound effects and extras pounding spears. Yet the scenes in the encampment have an atmosphere of downbeat stale desperation rather than of anticipation or excitement. The impact of the war is shown upon bystanders, rather than warriors, as a child screams in terror seeing his father unrecognisable in full armour
The play opens in the present day with the gaunt figure of Zeus (Richard Bremmer) reduced to hawking souvenirs and re-telling myths. Bagnall seizes the opportunity to lighten the mood with a more comedic atmosphere for Olympus, which becomes a place in which the Gods conspire and snigger like schoolchildren and Zeus is a henpecked husband. While a theme of the play is the relationship between Gods and mortals this is examined purely from the point of view of the former – whether Gods can survive in the absence of human belief. The possibility that mortals might use religion to justify barbaric acts is left unexplored.
The sheer scale of the story shapes, and to a degree limits, the production. Bagnall is compelled to concentrate on telling the story efficiently rather than imaginatively which does not help to hold audience attention. Limited startling moments – the brash entrance of Paris (a louche Tom Stuart) in cocky rock star mode- are offset by Zeus rattling off statistics on the number of ships and their point of origin.
The few scenes available to the cast to develop their characters are restricted by the confines imposed by the story and the approach of the producers. Jake Fairbrother’s fascinatingly morbid interpretation of Achilles, suggesting an obsession with death as much as glory, also has to serve as a reminder of the brutality to which war pushes combatants. Colin Tierney makes a strong impact with his version of Odysseus less as a strategist and more of a ruthless opportunist willing to exploit the weaknesses of other people.
Considering that the play centres on the beauty of a woman it has a curious lack of passion. Armitage contrasts the legend of an unspoiled beauty – a face that launched a thousand ships – with a cruder limerick. This possibility that the play might take a less reverential, more human, approach towards Helen is not, however, reflected in Lily Cole’s performance. She cuts a striking figure; dressed always in white as if to refute Helen’s reputation, and with a tall regal bearing. Yet her beauty is distant and isolated; Helen seems more remote than the Gods and certainly does not fit the comment that people smell sex whenever she enters a room. Helen remains an enigma; no indication is given of which side she supports in the conflict or even how she perceives herself.
The Last Days of Troy re-tells the classic myths in a clear manner and is not without humour. However, the opportunity to develop an imaginative and compelling production is limited by the sheer volume of material.
Runs until 7th June 2014