Radio 4's The Last Days of Troy, review: Lily Cole is a model queen in this bold drama

Simon Armitage's play is drawn from Homer's The Iliad and was staged last year at the Manchester Royal Exchange and at Shakespeare's Globe before being divided into two parts for radio

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The Independent Culture

I was filled with trepidation about Radio 4's The Last Days of Troy, the poet Simon Armitage's drama drawn from Homer's The Iliad with snippets of the Odyssey and the Aeniad. This is because just a fortnight ago I dutifully grappled with the similarly heavy-duty War and Peace on Radio 4, and, to be frank, I'm still traumatised.

Clocking in at 10 hours and aired on New Year's Day, it was quite clearly broadcast as a punishment to the nation for having too much fun the night before. After just two hours, I had already had two involuntary naps, and after a third brief slip into unconsciousness I realised I was both fully rested and bored to the brink of madness.

Thankfully this version of the Troy tale, which was staged last year at the Manchester Royal Exchange and at Shakespeare's Globe, comes in at comparatively brief three hours, and has been divided into two parts for radio (the second instalment arrives next week).

Even better, Armitage has filled it with bold and salty language. I doubt that neither Greek Gods or mortals ever talked about "shit-storms", as Achilles did here, but who the hell cares? Next to the whiny burbling of Tolstoy's aristos, their bluntness was really rather refreshing.

The story was built around the commentary of a pedlar flogging plastic tat to tourists in Hisarlik (where Troy is suppose to have stood) as he recounted his version of the siege. This weary and largely ignored pedlar was actually Zeus.

At the start he told of a ferocious disagreement between Agamemanon and Achilles, in which the latter castigated the former for claiming the priest's daughter as his latest plaything. Indeed, the whole drama was awash with men shouting at each other, arguing about their "prizes" (that'll be the women) and going head-to-head in thundering displays of willy-waving machismo.

Achilles' army, we learned, was in poor shape. Their camps were blighted with a heinous plague and soldiers had resorted to digging their own graves. Achilles wouldn't be deterred, though. After a nocturnal vision in which Zeus ordered him to go into a final, bloody battle, he instructed Odysseus: "Spread the word, right down to the last spear-carrier and cabin boy and pot washer. We'll go at them with everything we've got."

In Homer's telling, the abducted Helen is largely silent, essentially a beautiful ghost. Here, played by the model-turned-actress Lily Cole, her presence was vocal and vital, if deliberately vague about her loyalties.

Sulkily admiring her embroidering skills, Andromache told Helen: "When you walk in a room the men smell sex, the women smell death."

"No," replied Helen. "The women smell sex, that is why they detest me. The men smell death and it smells exciting, because it smells like war."

In the stage version, Cole was the big draw, her catwalk career seemingly making her a shoo-in for "the face that launched a thousand ships". Here, without the ability to gaze at that extraordinary face, we were left undistracted – which is perhaps one of the strengths of this adaptation.

In the event, Armitage was the real star, with his vivid and muscular dialogue and occasional flashes of humour. Here the parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan were subtle but clear enough, as Helen was essentially cast as a weapon of mass destruction in a pitiless, pointless struggle.

The Last Days of Troy was a powerful reflection on the folly of men and the cruelty of war. Better still, unlike War and Peace, it was defiantly Not Boring.