I have never longed so much for the moment I could leave the theatre as when watching the Royal Exchange production of Caryl Churchill’s 1994 drama, The Skriker, that really should have been left un-revived rather than being the centrepiece of the 2015 Manchester International Festival.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this dirty old part of the city Where the sun refuse to shine People tell me there ain’t no use in trying Now my girl you’re so young and pretty And one thing I know is true You’ll be dead before your time is due
We gotta get out of this place If its the last thing we ever do We gotta get out of this place ‘Cause girl, there’s a better life For me and you
– Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’
I remember the buzz that surrounded Port, the play by Simon Stephens, when it was premièred at the Royal Exchange Manchester in 2002. The play was set in Stockport, Stephens’ hometown, and had been written during a year he spent as resident dramatist at the Exchange in 1999. I didn’t see it then, but, in London last week, I had the curious experience of having travelled 200 miles to watch a play set in the town nearest to the place where I grew up.
Port spans 13 years in the life of the bright and vivacious Racheal, from the age of 11 when she and her six-year-old brother Billy are abandoned by their mother. The play begins (and ends) in a car parked outside a block of flats in Stockport. In the first scene, set in 1988, Racheal is a restless, inquisitive 11-year-old, sitting with her mum and brother after they have all been locked out by a dad who has gone a bit ‘mental’ (one of the joys of the play is Stephen’s ear for the vernacular, for the street argot of a time when everything weird was ‘mental’).
Stephens’ drama follows Racheal (that’s how her name is spelled in the script by the way) as she comes to terms with the emotional shock of her mother’s disappearance, her father’s isolation and alcoholism, and the death of her grandfather. She is the spirited focus of the play, resilient and fiercely articulate, fighting to overcome the hand that she has been dealt in life. We see her struggle to define herself – in love and in marriage, through work and getting her own place. She is protective of her younger brother (prone to getting repeatedly run over, and, later, to thieving and subsequent spells of incarceration), but makes mistakes in her own erratic life. One of the most powerful scenes occurs in a hotel room in Edale on the eve of the millenium, with Racheal left cowering and terrified after a brutal onslaught by the abusive man she has unwisely and unexpectedly married.
Racheal is central to the play, ‘open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic’ in Stephens’ words, but complicated, too, with unlovely aspects born out of neglect and abuse. Above all, though, it is Racheal’s tenacity and resilience (reminiscent, as Michael Billington observed in his review for The Guardian, of Shelagh Delaney’s Jo in A Taste of Honey) that means that you leave the theatre, not downhearted, but with your spirits lifted.
All of the performances in this production at the National were convincing: Mike Noble as Racheal’s brother Billy, Jack Deam as her fearsome husband, and Calum Callaghan as boyfriend Danny are all worthy of mention. But it was Kate O’Flynn, mesmerising in the central role of Racheal, who held the whole thing together. She makes the transition from child to young woman in the early scenes without leaving the stage, discarding one layer of clothing after another like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. She made the difficult transition from an mercurial 11-year-old to a 24-year-old – hurt, divorced, but still standing – look entirely convincing. O’Flynn’s performance made Racheal likeable and human, someone whose feelings you could understand and empathise with, not out of pity, but because of the sheer strength of her character.
Simon Stephens has written about the origins of Port:
I was given a commission by Manchester’s Royal Exchange. It made sense to write about where I was born. I returned to the town for weeks at a time, my visits coinciding with the last few months of my dad’s life. The combination of seeing old friends, going to places I’d not been to for years, and watching my dad fight cancer are manifest in the play, in ways I’ve only now come to realise. The places where I’d grown up became my dramatic landscape: the Mersey Way shopping centre and Stockport bus station, drab municipal shells sitting in the shadow of the mighty viaduct. And the kids I’d been to school with and worked with in shit weekend jobs gave me its characters. They were dryly funny, smart and skint. The music we had all listened to came to inform the play’s structure.
Although I began this review by quoting what seem like pertinent lines from the Animals 1965 hit ‘We Gotta Get out of This Place’, the National Theatre production is drenched in the music made in Manchester in the late 1980s. Stephens explains:
Port is about a place and a time – south Manchester in the late 1980s – that was charged with music. I wanted to dramatise that charge. I wanted the play to have the same effect on an audience that the Fall, New Order, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses had on me. I tried to build scenes with the same pace and structure as their songs. I tried to evoke the imagery of their lyrics in my dialogue. […]
So I went back home and interviewed five women who had lived in Stockport all their lives – relatives, old friends, friends of my mum. The oldest was my 85 year-old nana; the youngest my teenage cousin. They told me about their jobs and marriages, their aspirations and frustrations. Many of these stories – from the discovery of a dead sparrow to a disastrous New Year’s Eve in a hotel – made it into the fabric of the play.
The story began to develop: a series of scenes focused on one character, Racheal Keats. We watch her grow up. We watch her deal with a family falling apart and a complicated marriage, with a broken-hearted brother who has criminal proclivities, and with the love of her life. She’s open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic.
Stephens portrays Racheal’s struggle as a battle between love and hatred for the town where she has grown. She longs for the countryside beyond the town, for different places, better places. She leaves but returns, a somewhat philosophical 24-year-old who acknowledges her mistakes and the continuing sense of loss she has felt since her mother’s disappearance (ironically, the one character who does escape the place).
In the NT’s programme there’s an extract from Paul Morley’s forthcoming book The North (and almost everything in it). He grew up in Stockport, too. He writes of a town where ‘wit and bloody-minded acceptance cauterise hopelessness’, and of the ‘frustration, …. the broken hearts, resolution and ferocious, native candour’ running through Port.Morley continues:
The town carries on, Stoicport, and nothing much changes, except the people, still being born there, spending their time there, making do, making it up as they go along, maybe plotting escape routes. Some are in the posh parts, some are stuck where Stockport itself stays stuck near enough to the happening, still modernising big city, with its own battles a little adrift, desperately looking for tomorrow in a place that often settles for what it’s got, where it is and the miserable weather like there’s no tomorrow. I’d left by 1978, because all major roads and railways lines lead out, towards possible adventure, and Manchester Airport begins where Stockport ends. I turned my back on the place, but took with me the Stockport fighter, the Stockport lip and defiant, non-fey accent, as personified by anti-establishment 1930s tennis champion Fred Perry, born in the centre of the Stockport valley a few hundred yards from where the Mersey begins. I left Stockport, but eventually got to realise, you never completely leave.
In an interview with the Metro, Stephens said, ‘Port is a play that I hope inspires. But theatre is a fundamentally optimistic enterprise and my plays are rooted in a faith in people. That’s what makes me want to write.’ The Metro piece continued:
The only personal history Stephens admits to pilfering is his burning teenage desire, like Racheal, to get out of Stockport, where he grew up. ‘Now I go back and can see the beauty of the place,’ he says. ‘I see what I’ve inherited from it: an intolerance of pretension and an insistence that I do my bloody job, that I work hard. But when I was 14, Stockport took on the mantle of the place to flee.’
If the acting shone, there were difficulties with the staging. When Port was first staged at the Royal Exchange, it was in an intimate theatre in the round setting that would have suited Stephens’ play better than the Lyttleton’s cavernous stage. In scenes such as the opening one which takes place in a car outside a block of flats, the largely empty stage seemed to dwarf the actors, and I had difficulty hearing some of the lines in the vastness of the Lyttleton.