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.
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 (http://www.radiodramareviews.com/id1496.html),
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