Modern Classics

THEATRE Kings Tricycle, London
To the ancient Greeks, anyone who was not a native speaker of Greek was a barbarian. Presumably Christopher Logue would be counted especially barbaric, since he cheerfully admits to knowing no Greek whatsoever. He's careful to refer to the various works he has written around the Iliad not as translations, but as "poems in English dependent on the Iliad". In the programme for this production he is even more pussyfooting, calling it a poem dependent on "whatever, through reading and through conversation, I could guess about a part of the Iliad".

For the fellow non-Greek speaker, it's hard to tell how accurate those guesses are. But seeing Alan Howard perform Kings at the Tricycle confirms that Logue's barbaric approach to Homer feels authentic in a way that more informed, classically trained versions don't, precisely because the world he conjures up is barbaric, in the more familiar, modern sense of the word. The quarrels among the Greeks with which this episode is taken up may be heroic in scale, but the Greeks themselves can rarely have seemed less like heroes. As Logue paints them, they are vicious, arbitrary, swaggering, their emotions not so much primal as primitive - they are less kings, in fact, than tribal chiefs.

To evoke the brutality and machismo of this world, Liane Aukin's production offers, to be blunt, two men with thinning hair and sagging midriffs: Alan Howard, perched like some ungainly bird on a high stool and Logue himself, parked clerk-like behind a desk with a copy of the text - a reminder of his status as well as an aide-memoire. This turns out to be sufficient for the purpose, though.

With his outsize voice and imperious manner, Howard can sometimes be a rather overpowering presence on stage. Here, though, he seems perfectly fitted to the magnitude of the exercise. Kings is taken from the first two books of the Iliad, where Achilles quarrels with Agamemnon; hands on hips, pouting and sneering, Howard conjures up a sharp picture of the sulky boy hero and the disdainful autocrat. He is, too, thoroughly in tune with Logue's poetry, capturing effortlessly the beckoning, cajoling tone that he employs - constantly inviting the audience to picture this, to share his vision of what is happening - adding a sense of space and direction with an inclination of the head, a wave of the hand. Logue's occasional interventions in the action, to add a descriptive gloss or to give voice to the wise and ancient Nestor, are also well done.

That's not to say that there's never a dull moment - at two or three points I found my attention wandering, if only briefly. And already, seven years after publication, some of Logue's attempts to find modern equivalents for Homer's language seem dated ("world-class Achilles", "keeping bloodshed to the maximum"). But the immediacy and narrative sweep of Kings outweigh the quibbles. It remains an exciting and rewarding contemporary rediscovery of one of the greatest works of world literature, and of the power of story-telling. Tricycle Theatre, London NW6, to 19 Apr (0171-328 1000)