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