Philippa Williams finds a fleet-footed new take on the Trojan War.
Rage. Fury. Doom. Desecrate. Helen. These words flank poet Simon Armitage’s new play at the Globe. The Last Days of Troy, directed by Nick Bagnall, interlinks events from Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, to convey the aftermath of the war between the Trojans and the Greeks. Anger permeates the plot. Helen, whose abduction from Sparta to Troy supposedly sparked off the battle, is now the figurehead of the action in this adaptation, the mesmerising culprit thought to turn the soil red as she walks, and we begin to wonder how much of her character we will be permitted to see.
The fact is that Armitage has produced a really remarkable drama. Traditional themes ranging from Iliadic ship catalogues to the superficiality of the immortals, are present, but the dialogue is original. Expletives are heard. All work well. The black canopy framing the stage, from which corpses are dragged and battle lines drawn up, heightens the physicality of the story (choreography by Kevin McCurdy). Contemporarily the play’s take on war is timeless, reflecting above all on its polarised effects, with both the dreadful waste and the human qualities that can come to the fore. We go straight to the nub of war’s cruelty, never more so than in a bitterly ironic scene where downstage King Agamemnon and Odysseus bloody their fellow Greeks, and one another, with their own hands. These scarlet hands and blades they hold up to Zeus in thanks and supplication.
The action is at its best with Richard Bremmer, whose Zeus delivers powerful commentary as he switches between eras. Becoming a kind of alter ego, he reflects from the modern day on the horrors and the futility of war. He is both world-weary and wry, in speeches devoid of grandeur compared with those of the more familiar omnipotent god casually chucking down the elements. Now he sells ‘Zeus souvenirs’ and clutches a cardboard lightning-bolt. It is an excellent mechanism on which to poise the play’s narrative.
Lily Cole, as Helen, is cool; her voice hypnotic and her movements measured. Whether or not this could be interpreted as stiff, it does no harm. She is compelling. Her serene tones forever invite suspicion. ‘Are you still a Greek?’ she is challenged, and certainly Helen’s poignant song to her countrymen in the play’s closing stages is the first instance when she allows a hint of real passion and sympathy. The contrast comes across to good effect here.
Jake Fairbrother powerfully portrays the intensity of Achilles, and there are especially strong contributions from Gillian Bevan as Hera and David Birrell as Agamemnon, with unfailingly well-timed humour. Garry Cooper gives a heartrending performance as Priam, dignified in his despair and defeat. We are left with the sense we expected, that there are no real winners or losers. Except the play itself, which is an undoubted triumph.
The Last Days of Troy runs at the Globe Theatre until 28th June
Credit for image: Jonathan Keenan