The Last Days of Troy by Simon Armitage

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The Last Days of Troy by Simon Armitage. 

Dir.  Susan Roberts.  Perf. Jake Fairbrother, Richard Bremmer, Colin Tierney, BBC Radio 4, 11-18 Jan. 2015.

BBCiPlayer to 17 Feb. 2015.


Based on a production originally staged at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, The Last Days of Troy, Simon Armitage’s retelling of the Achilles story from The Iliad and The Odyssey, had a distinctly contemporary twist to it.


Susan Roberts’s production operated on several levels.  At one level it was a searching analysis of how concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” are culturally constructed, placing almost impossible demands on individuals.  Achilles (Jake Fairbrother) struggled to act according to expectations, prompting him to make a fatal substitution in battle using Patroclus (Brendan O’Hea) as his bait.  The women suffered equal difficulties – in this production Helen (Lily Cole) came across as something of a schemer trying to convince everyone around her that she had both the power and the know-how to fulfill her civic duties.  Both Greek and Trojan societies resembled emotional and physical hothouses in which outward appearance mattered more than inner peace.  Hence many of the characters ended up in psychological turmoil.


The gods’ world turned out to be not much better.  Zeus (Richard Bremmer) squabbled with his fellow-gods – so much so that there seemed to be little difference between themselves and the human beings they purported to control.  The second episode presented us with a little surprise, showing the extent to which the gods had been reduced, especially in the contemporary world.  Through this strategy director Roberts prompted us to reflect on precisely what a “god” actually signifies, both in terms of the past and the present.  If the gods are no different from human beings, then do the myths (of which they form a constituent part) actually have any significance for contemporary listeners?  The Radio 4 website included a quotation from Armitage, claiming that the drama reinforced the significance of “great myths” insofar as it focused on elemental themes such as “family ties” and “national loyalty.”  Yet the listening experience rather undercut this comment; as the gods seemed rather insignificant, we wondered whether the myths – of which they form such an important component – are really as great as we have been led to believe.


The main thrust of The Last Days of Troy seemed to lie in a completely different direction.  Although focusing specifically on the bloody battles between Greeks and Trojans, Armitage’s script came across as an antiwar tract, emphasizing both the bloodiness and the sheer pointlessness of the campaigns.  The Greeks might triumph over the Trojans, and hence recover their abducted queen, but at what cost?  Roberts’s production emphasized this aspect through the use of gruesome sound-effects, the groans of human bodies being mangled to death, the confused shouts of armies being vanquished, and the endless cycle of revenge, counter-revenge and sheer bloodthirstiness that seemed to drive the main characters on.  In the end there seemed to be no winners and losers; rather there were two groups of people who quite literally fought one another to a standstill.  The fact that The Last Days of Troy appeared in 2015, precisely a century after the “war to end all wars” had entered its second endless year, was especially significant.


The first and second parts of the production began with a narrator: speaking in the modern era, he came across as a hawker selling trinkets for modern tourists who had decided to visit some of the ancient Greek and Trojan sites.  When no one wanted to buy his wares, he decided to waylay them with stories of the past – this provided us with a way in to Armitage’s retelling of the Homeric and Virgilian myths.  Yet this hawker was not quite what he seemed, as the second episode revealed. 


Compared to other radio adaptations of the same material – for example, Hattie Naylor’s version of The Aeneid, that appeared in 2013 (, Armitage’s adaptation took a far more skeptical view, both in terms of the representation of the gods, and its view of the Greco-Trojan conflicts.  Nonetheless, it was still compelling listening.