Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is the stuff that dreams are made of. For the dramatist it is the cumulation of a dream that began in the café of Hebden Bridge railway station; for the cast it is undoubtedly the kind of opportunity they dreamt of when first they embarked on a career upon the stage; for the audience it’s the sort of theatrical evening we dream of all year.
This gripping play deals with the final 50 days of the brutal war between Greece and Troy. It begins with a low rent Zeus, a fallen God in a fallen city, now reduced to selling cheap tat to coach loads of modern-day tourists. Here in the ruins of once mighty Troy this ruined deity guides the audience back some 3,000 years to the first heroic age to leave its mark on the pages of history – literally in this case as Armitage draws his themes from the pages of three of western literature’s greatest works: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid.
Despite its ancient roots, the play’s dialogue is contemporary in nature, although it is studded with poetic gems from its classical antecedents. And right from the start this fusion proved to be a winning formula, as did director Nick Bagnall’s decision to allow his actors to choose from among the many available back-stories which would allow them the greatest insight into their characters.
This holy trinity of script, direction and performance repeatedly pays dividends on stage with Lily Cole’s depiction of Helen of Troy being a case in point. Helen is not only beautiful but possessed of intangible qualities that drive many men mad with desire. For her, and all those about her, this has proven to be utterly disastrous. Marlowe famously described her as having a face that launched a thousand ships but in The Last Days of Troy Helen might well describe herself as having a face that caused 100,000 deaths (and counting). This Helen is all too aware of the misery her desirability has caused, just as she is aware of the fragility of her own position. Thus Cole plays her Helen as a woman determined to present a careful, concentrated passivity to those around her, letting the woman beneath slip through the veil only very occasionally.
Similarly the hatred between Agamemnon and Achilles presents the audience with two halves of the perfect sociopath. The Greek King, played with glorious relish by David Birrell, is a moral vacuum into which power and wealth must flow lest he lose himself once and for all to the simmering contradictions of his own psyche.
Achilles on the other hand is an arrogant, prideful aristocrat of the kind who is ten a penny in every era. Unfortunately in this case he’s also the most efficient killer on the planet, even without the top level supernatural backing that he’s blessed with, and Jake Fairbrother plays Achilles with a ferocious, violent energy that is completely convincing. His gruelling duel with Hector, skilfully played by Simon Harrison, is a bloodily compelling and frighteningly intense scene and one in which both should rightly be proud.
Elsewhere the Gods scheme and squabble, manoeuvring and manipulating their human favourites according to their own very human prejudices. But Armitage admirably refuses to tack the useful motivational suspects onto them, and although the play is thematically linked to the Exchange’s upcoming Britannia Waves the Rules, the inhabitants of Olympus are not some obvious, lazy metaphor for modern political preoccupations, but are instead what they always were, a reflection of ourselves.
Speaking of Gods, special mention must be made of Clare Calbraith in her duel role as the Goddess Thetis and Andromache, the wife of Hector. Calbraith slips seamlessly between these two very different personas and in both she is beautifully mesmerising. But in truth the entire cast were at the top of their game and if there was anyone present who wasn’t moved to tears by Garry Copper’s portrayal of King Priam then they must have been utterly soulless, or at the very least heavily dehydrated.
The Last Days of Troy is a stunning reimagining of a timeless classic and a must-see event in this year’s theatrical calendar. This bloody, passionate, nuanced play is a masterpiece in every respect and will do much to reawaken the dream of Homer for a new generation.
What: The Last Days of Troy
Where: The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
When: until June 7, 2014
More info: www.royalexchange.co.uk/event.aspx?id=781