The Last Days of Troy, Royal Exchange Manchester, review: Lily Cole plays an enigmatic heroine
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Thursday 15 May 2014
The rest, as they say, is history, concludes Zeus, speaking three thousand years after the end of the Trojan Wars. Actually, the rest is mythology says his goddess wife Hera in The Last Days of Troy, this reworking of the Iliad by the poet Simon Armitage.
Homer’s tale of ancient enmity is one of the great action stories of Western literature with characters, motives and events robust enough to cope with all manner of retelling. Armitage has opted for an account which is pared to the blood-stained bone. Its great economy emphasises the drama without sacrificing poetic allusion.
But if there is a universality to its gruesome and at times brutal portrait of the barbarity of war – Armitage’s vivid descriptions could be from Syria today – there is something anomalous to modern ears about the Greek gods. These ancient immortals sit far from even modern atheist notions about what it means to be divine. These gods are just another tribe of petulant squabbling partisans.
Armitage neatly addresses that with two Zeuses, the first immersed in tragedy the second in farce. The play opens with Zeus as a comic character, a sad caricature of his former Olympian glory, selling plastic models of the gods to tourists from a battered old-fashioned suitcase as antiquated as his vocabulary.
It seemed, at first, a shaky device on the opening night. There was an uneasy contrast between the violence of the text and the comedy of the delivery. Richard Bremmer as Zeus seemed to wrestle with that as much as he did with the recalcitrant collapsing stand inside his suitcase which had unfortunate echoes of a comedian folding a seaside deckchair. But Armitage goes on to extract a rich load from the contrast between the urbane Zeus on Olympus and the decrepit immortal three millennia on.
After an opening scene in the Greek king’s camp which was curiously lacking in creative energy The Last Days of Troy explodes into high drama. Jake Fairbrother has a barely-contained puissance as the simmering Achilles and Colin Tierney is bold and wily as the canny strategist Odysseus. Gillian Bevan adds nicely under-stated comedy as a jealous Hera.
But it is with the Trojans, in their garb of dried-blood red and dusty ochre, that the emotional energy rises. Tom Stuart is a persuasive seducer as Paris, Simon Harrison unthinkingly warriorlike as Hector and Garry Cooper heart-breakingly paternal as old Priam.
In their midst the international model Lily Cole, in a long shift of plain white, conjures an evocative ambiguity as the beautiful Helen of Troy, a blank canvas onto whose pale beauty every man paints his own desideratum. She speaks few words but that only adds to the potency of her enigma. Indeed she actually loses power on her longer speeches which seem curiously stilted. But there is a haunting quality to her breathless song to the Greeks inside the wooden horse.
Nick Bagnall’s direction is as taut and untricksy as Armitage’s raw, vivid muscular verse which is undergirded by sparing theatrical devices and a stark primitive set.
Playing at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 7 June; 0161 833 9833
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 2 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 3 Van driver who comforted Clark Carlisle and called 999 after suicide attempt dies age 24
- 4 James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
- 5 Baby rescued 1km out to sea after parents forgot about her
Bad luck, One Direction: Paul McCartney doubts success of The Beatles will ever be matched again
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
The Crystal Maze: Richard O’Brien confirmed to return as more details revealed about show's rebooted format
James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
Guillaume Tell's gang-rape scene caused uproar at the Royal Opera House – but the portrayal of extreme sex and violence on stage is nothing new
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture