Arts & Books: Troy: this time it's personal

Andrew Rissik was one of the rising stars of British drama. Until he was struck down with ME. Now he's back with the epic radio play, Troy.
RADIO DRAMA has been in shrinkage for a few years now: classic serials have been lopped and lopped, and Radio 4, which used to happily accommodate 90-minute, or even two-hour, dramas, will hardly allow anything longer than three-quarters of an hour these days. So it is a refreshing surprise to come across something as ambitious in scale as Troy: a trilogy of plays, broadcast tonight and tomorrow, that take us from the birth of Paris, through the siege and destruction of Troy and on to the aftermath - the murder of Agamemnon, and Helen, the cause of so much suffering, achieving a sort of peace.

The author is Andrew Rissik. a name that may ring a bell with longstanding readers of The Independent. When the paper began in 1986, Rissik was one of the arts critics. In 1988, however, he stopped writing for the paper and, in a surprising way, his subsequent history resonates through Troy.

Rissik had had a brilliant academic career - double first at Oxford, Senior Scholar at Christ Church, beginnings of a doctoral thesis - but turned his back on that in the early Eighties to concentrate on writing. He paid the bills through theatre criticism, but in his spare time he was establishing himself as a dramatist - one television play was broadcast , and several radio plays, one of which, Anthony, part of a trilogy collectively entitled A Man Alone, had won a Giles Cooper Award. Altogether, you would have said, a promising young man. But in early 1988, he found himself unable to shake off a bout of flu. A doctor advised him to rest; but when things didn't improve, he was admitted to hospital, subjected to a battery of tests, and diagnosed as suffering from ME. And that, more or less, was that.

For the last 10 years, Rissik has been too ill to hold down a job. Like all sufferers from ME (or, to use the newer acronym, CFS), he has had to cope with two sets of problems. One is the purely internal suffering: "You are simply enmeshed in a body that doesn't work... you spend a lot of time lying in the dark on your own, feeling so physically ill, so poisoned, you can't enjoy anything, even watching TV." The other is external: the lingering suspicion that it is not a real disease, or that it is psychological in origin - a kind of depression. For Rissik, it is "a very physical illness": symptoms have included pain in his limbs, vicious attacks of nausea, blinding headaches every night, insomnia, and a permanent sense of exhaustion.

Early on, when he thought that the illness was bound to wear off and the solution was to keep working, he wrote a Radio 4 series, The Psychedelic Spy, a dry, stylish pastiche of world-weary Sixties spy movies. A couple of television scripts were commissioned, written and paid for, but never saw the light of day.

Troy sprang from his earlier Radio 4 play, King Priam - a monologue performed by Paul Scofield. The idea was to make this part of a trilogy; but Rissik ended with something grander. Troy has a large starry cast: Scofield returns as the play's presiding deity, Hermes; and the supporting cast includes Toby Stephens as Achilles, Emma Fielding, Michael Maloney, Lindsay Duncan, Michael Sheen, David Harewood...

But Troy also represents a change in his attitude: looking back at the earlier King Priam, Rissik sees it as having "a light and a slightly false optimism that is simply not part of one's view any more". If Troy has a theme, it is accepting what life throws at you, the grace that is left when ambition and possessions and everything else you thought made life enjoyable have been stripped away - Helen, generally a marginal figure in most versions of the Trojan myth, here becomes the bearer of the story's moral.

I don't want to kid you that Troy is perfect. The production has flaws, notably an intrusive, cod-mystical score; and Rissik's dialogue, treading the line between obviously modern and self-consciously archaic, is at times awkward.

Nevertheless, it is a boldly conceived, always searching approach to the story and its infinite meanings; and once again, you would say, this looks like a promising young man.

`King Priam and His Sons', Tonight, 8.30pm R3; `The Death of Achilles', tomorrow 7.30pm; `Helen at Ephesus', tomorrow 9.30pm.

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