Homer Inside the Wooden ‘O’
“Talking to yourself,” a very modern Hera admonishes Zeus towards the end of Simon Armitage’s new play ‘The Last Days of Troy’, “telling your stories again.” It’s a sobering moment: the all-powerful Greek god reappearing in the play as a down-at-heel modern-day souvenir seller at the gates of present-day Troy, his dramatic retelling of the events there dismissed as an old man’s ramblings. Personally, I think it, like the rest of this play, worked very well: an example of what Armitage has brought to the Trojan story through recasting it for the stage. As a poet, he has breathed new life into ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and ‘The Death of King Arthur’ with his modern translations and re-workings of the poems. Now he has taken on one of the key texts and stories of world literature. His 2006 verse adaptation of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ suggested this was possible, but when his lines are delivered on stage as opposed to being read the effect is heightened significantly.
The stage setting for the Globe production of the play is bare. Indeed, the black drapes around the columns and the rear screen are those also being deployed in the current ‘Titus Andronicus’. There is little to take out attention away from the narrative. But what a narrative that is. Achilles’ withdrawal from the fighting, Patroclus’ ill-fated decision to fight disguised as his companion and death at the hands of Hector, Achilles’ return to the combat and final duel with Hector, and Priam’s grief-stricken plea for the return of his son’s body are familiar to readers of Homer the world over. Outside of the scope of Homer’s ‘Iliad’, but still very much part of this play, we also see what comes next: the Trojan Horse, the Greek seizure of the city, the death of Priam and the preparations for the Greeks’ triumphal return home.
By using Zeus as a link with the present Armitage has punctuated some of the unreality that so often hangs over the ancient past. The Trojan War seems so very long ago, but at the same time very much something that we, the audience, have lived over again while we’ve been in the theatre. The Globe’s space works very well in this regard, as the proximity of actors and audience, coupled with the fact that actors can pop up within the standing crowd in the theatre’s yard at key moments helps forge and maintain a sense of tension and involvement. Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Hector, Paris, and Priam are very visible, very fallible, and very real.
The gods on Olympus bicker and try to advance their preferred side in the war as the humans below struggle to see a way out of the events that, after ten years, have taken over everything else. The kings, David Birrell’s Agamemnon and Garry Cooper’s Priam, display the enthusiasm born of desperation, each hoping that the breakthrough will come soon, each destined to be disappointed. Through it all Lily Cole’s Helen is wonderfully enigmatic as the cause of the war, her loyalty and motivation a mystery to the very end. The closing moments, with the victorious Greeks preparing to load their ships with booty and depart, don’t feel like closing moments because we know on some level what awaits them: murderous homecomings or long periods of wandering exile. The war has been won, but it isn’t finished. No wonder, then, that Zeus keeps retelling the tale for present-day tourists and that when put onto the stage at the Globe it feels as urgent and intense as it has been for more than two thousand years. “Still hanging around here?” Hera asks Zeus at the end of the play. “Where else would I go?” he replies. Where indeed.
‘The Last Days of Troy’ runs at the Globe until 28th June: