Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus –
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds
– The Iliad,
Book One, opening lines

I’ve never been able to keep straight in my head the stories and characters of the Greek myths – who did what to whom, who was related to whom, and who was mortal, who of the gods.  So I was mightily appreciative of Simon Armitage’s Last Days of Troy which we saw performed at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester this week: the clarity of the language and narrative drive of his adaptation of the Iliad meant that I never once lost the plot.

Somehow, Armitage has managed to compress into a three and a quarter hour performance the essence of fifteen thousand lines of the Iliad, as well as throwing in episodes from The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. He has done this by paring the epic poem to the bone and focussing on the wrath of the maverick Greek warrior, Achilles. The production grips throughout – a combination of Armitage’s poetic prose, imaginative staging, and powerful performances by several members of the cast.

Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy
Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy

Homer’s Iliad written around 700 BC, begins at the end of the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greeks determined to revenge the abduction by the Trojan prince Paris of Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Armitage places another act of vengeance at centre stage in this adaptation – Achilles’s wrath when his ­commander-in-chief Agamemnon seizes Briseis, Achilles’s captive woman, as his own compensation. Achilles, his pride and honour outraged, withdraws from the fighting and persuades his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to turn the tide of war against the Greeks, with appalling consequences. Simone Weil once remarked that ‘the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force, that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing’. Later on in this production, a powerful and terrifying scene in which Achilles howls and tears at a body he has butchered revealed the truth of Weil’s words in the most vivid terms. Stubbornly resisting appeals to return to battle, Achilles has ­eventually agreed to send his beloved comrade, Patroclus, into the fray.When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles embarks on a lengthy and pitiless slaughtering spree, finally killing Hector and dragging his mutilated triumphantly around the walls of Troy.

The play opens in present-day Hisarlik in north-west Turkey, the archaeological site where the remains of Troy have been excavated. The god Zeus is now reduced to being a pedlar to the tourists – selling little statues of the gods and replicating himself as a living statue performer. He relives his memories of the siege and the machinations of the gods that extended a wasteful and horrifying war.

Why do nations go to war? At whose orders? These are issues still as urgent today as they were some three millennia ago when Homer gathered echoes and whispers from events that took place in the Bronze Age, four- or five-hundred years before he was born.  You could interpret the clumsy interventions by bumbling gods as a comment on modern-day politicians who lead their nations to war, while other aspects of the narrative such as the factional struggles, the grandiose but hollow rhetoric of war, the delusion and growing despair might seem familiar. But Armitage and director Nick Bagnall resist the temptation to draw heavy-handed parallels with present-day conflicts.

Although Simon Armitage has made these connections in interview, his play seems to be primarily concerned – just as in Homer’s original telling, or in Alice Oswald’s stunning Memorial – with presenting us with a clear-eyed view of the carnage of war.  A couple of years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak wrote of how, in Homer’s poem:

Spears cut through temples, foreheads, navels, chests both below and above the nipple. Even despised bows kill, and heavy stones appear as weapons. Joyful victors strip their victims of their armour and gain extra delight from imagining their weeping mothers and wives. Yet the Iliad is a million miles away from the pornography of violence offered by many lesser war books, battle paintings, martial sculptures and most obviously films, in which the enemy bad guys are triumphantly trampled or gleefully mown down, because the humanity of the victims, their terror and their atrocious pain, are fully expressed. The powerful affirmation of the warrior’s creed – we are all mortal anyway so let us fight valiantly – coexists with the unfailingly negative depiction of war as horrible carnage.

Sneaking a look at Adam Nicolson’s  new book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, which Rita has just begun reading, I see that he asserts that:

The siege of Troy, often seen as a kind of war, as if these were two states battling with each other’, is in fact more like a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich … the hero-complex of the Greek warriors is simply gang mentality writ large.

‘Iliadic behaviour’, he writes, ‘echoes through modern urban America.  gang members ‘talk about themselves, their lives, their ambitions, their idea of fate, the role of violence and revenge, in ways that are strangely like the Greeks in the Iliad.’  As I read that sentence, I thought of The Wire, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad.

So, revenge is one strand here in Simon Armitage’s stage dramatization; another is his implication that Helen’s abduction was really just an excuse. The final scene seems to suggest that the real motivation of the Greeks was plunder and annihilation of a rival state, rather than justice for Helen’s seizure. In this production, we are drawn inexorably into a forcefield of consequential violence. Armitage has explained how he excised minor characters, parallel narratives and self-contained episodes, and rolled some principal characters into one in order to maintain the narrative thrust. Odysseus, for example, is an amalgamation of several high-ranking nobles in the Greek encampment, though Armitage has expressed the hope that he has preserved the personal traits associated with him.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s stage design includes some striking visual effects: the Trojan warriors emerge from a smoke-filled tunnel as if from the mists of time, while the arrival of the wooden horse, which lies beyond the scope of the Iliad, is done with great effect. There are powerful performances from Jake Fairbrother as Achilles and Simon Harrison as Hector. Richard Bremmer is a rather comedic Zeus, Colin Tierney makes an impression as wily Odysseus,  while David Birrell gives a good performance as Agamemnon.

Lily Cole as Helen of Troy Photo-Jonathan-Keenan
Lily Cole as Helen of Troy (photo by Jonathan-Keenan for the Royal Exchange)

Talking about it afterwards (appropriately enough, over meze at Dimitri’s at the bottom of Deansgate), we did feel that were weaknesses in respect of the presentation of the women and the gods – failings that were apparent in both the writing and the performances.  None of the women in the play really shone  – Lily Cole, in particular, gave a performance that was as inexpressive and wooden as the ships her face reputedly launched. She has one haunting moment, however, when she sings a lament to seduce the Greeks inside the wooden horse with dreams of home. (In the programme, the words are in English, but I could not identify in which language Cole was singing).

As far as the gods were concerned – they were presented as figures of fun, bickering among themselves, rather than cosmic forces feared by men.  I know there is an element of this in Homer, but the humour did deflate the tragic intensity. The immortals may have squabbled, and their bickering may have worsened the conflict, but in Homer’s time they were perceived as divine beings; here they appeared to be no more than a bunch of petulant, squabbling relatives.

fresco depicting lyre player with a bird, palace of Nestor, Pylos
A fresco depicting a poet with a lyre and a bird, Myccenaean palace of Nestor, Pylos

 Apart from those reservations, though, this was a gripping production.  As always, the question is why, in Edward Luttwak’s words, ‘people keep buying and presumably reading an interminably long, frequently repetitive and intermittently gruesome Iron Age rendition of Bronze Age combat’.  In his new book, Adam Nicolson reckons it’s all to do with ‘Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue.’

He does not give us a set of exemplars.  These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Odysseus to be our model as men.  Nor Penelope or Helen as women.  Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery.  What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death.

In the Royal Exchange programme, Simon Armitage puts it this way:

Ancient fables endure for all kinds of reasons, but their continued relevance to the way we live now plays a major part in their survival. At the time when this play will be premièred many countries will be marking and commemorating the centenary of the First World War, with images of atrocities and questions of military morality high in people’s minds, just as they were for Homer. Moreover, the channel or strait that runs from the Bosphorus to the Dardanelles or Hellespont continues to symbolise a political, economic, cultural, philosophical and religious fault line between east and west. In that context, the story of Troy is a blueprint for a conflict that rages to this day.

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