Pride Before The Fall

Following a well-received run at the Manchester Royal Exchange and then Shakespeare's Globe, poet Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy, his adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, makes a welcome transition to BBC Radio 4. Armitage has become one of the UK's most popular and versatile poets, he has also dipped in and out Classics throughout his career with adaptations of Euripides and a 2006 translation of The Odyssey.  The Last Days of Troy further proves his ambition. To take on Homer is not a task for anyone who is not.

The Last Days of Troy generally stays faithful to the Homeric original but in its adaptation is clever as well as precise, intelligent and witty. It opens with Zeus, the kings of the gods, as a tourist guide selling trinkets for travellers at the modern site of the ancient ruins of Troy. “It will just take a minute,” He insists. In a sentence the tone is set. This is a modern production -  but one whose roots are firmly grounded in ancient epic -  which captures those key narrative moments and relates them neatly. It is unafraid to use bold, provocative language to do this. Moreover his adaptation does not put any clumsy modern links to the fore: we can do that for ourselves if we want. This does mean that the adaptation lacks force at times but where he finds a theme is in the banal masculinity of war. War is men's work, the women are left behind, despite their share in the losses; yet there is something about their interaction - their posture and talk of 'prizes' - which underlines the point that this is so much about pride. War is a wicked waste.

Our guide, played by Richard Bremmer, then wanders in and out of the action debating on when, how or whether to intervene in the affairs of men. He is at his best when lamenting on the sad futility of war or when exchanging snide asides with Gillian Bevan’s excellent Hera. It is a great performance and a wonderful nod to the genre.

Armitage’s words are used sparsely, vividly and accurately. If the Trojan bowmen had been this accurate the Greek would have been vanquished easily, there would have been no wooden horse and our literary cannon would have been poorer. He introduces the ten year background of the conflict, the story of Achilles feud with Agamemnon, quickly and skilfully. So much could be lost, but it isn't. 

Listening it is possible to see the potential pitfalls in a stage production which might snap our suspension of disbelief. The action is so intense that some of the battle scenes might come across as - well, staged. Unreal. Also Troy plays such a large part in our imagination - its great walls and temples recounted in so much poetry - that expectations can never really be met. Radio has no such problems. It is possible to sit back, close your eyes, listen but let your imagination do the work. That is what I did, drawing on those reserves first formed so many years ago when I first read Homer: our imagination recreates Homer’s epic as the action swirls around.

The performances are generally to be admired: Jake Fairbrother mixes his Achilles with heroic bravura and pique, while David Birrell and Colin Tierney impress as Agamemnon and Odysseus respectively. For me the most moving and somehow human performance was from Garry Cooper, who made a poignant yet Stoical Priam, the leader who watches his home destroyed and his family killed. Amongst the carnage and bloodshed there contrasts his dignity in the face of the inevitable destruction, which only reinforces the terror that surrounds the city.

The greatest weakness of the production is that the “face which launched a thousand ship”, Helen of Troy herself (Lily Cole), somehow lacks the presence for the role. What was perhaps intended as reserve and poise on stage seems like vapidity on radio. Yes, in Homer Helen is a spectral presence at times, but here she is vacant. It is a hard role to take on, but I felt Cole did not convey that aura of magnetism which Helen needs. On the other hand Clare Calbraith - alongside an excellent Simon Harrison as Hector - makes a brilliant Andromache, beautifully and defiantly forceful.

The men may be ‘heroes’, but the women can be better than that.

You can find out more information about The Last Days of Troy, visit picture galleries, listen to audio clips and more on the BBC Radio 4 website.