The Last Days of Troy, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – review
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If you’re looking to cast the role of Helen of Troy, you might as well quit faffing around and go straight for a supermodel. Lily Cole has been the most successful of her catwalk contemporaries in crossing over to acting, and her first sustained stage role mirrors the ability she has shown on screen. Her low-key delivery comes from deliberation rather than diffidence, portraying a Helen who is simply exhausted after a decade of being the incarnate reason for the Trojan War.
Simon Armitage’s treatment of Homer’s Iliad (plus relevant parts of the Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid) runs the gamut of linguistic and emotional registers. Helen’s fatigue contrasts with the inexhaustible passions of Jake Fairbrother as the mercurial Achilles; the self-regard of Greek commander Agamemnon (David Birrell) is clearly less vital to the Hellenic side than the stratagems of Odysseus (Colin Tierney, his forward thinking symbolised in that he is the only one wearing thoroughly modern dress). These distinctions coalesce in the figure of Richard Bremmer’s Zeus, who in classical mode is as imperious as they come but who also metamorphoses into a shabby present-day huckster offering disillusioned hindsight on these 3,000-odd-year-old mythological events.
Armitage and director Nick Bagnall resist the temptation to play up resonances with contemporary wars. What they show are universal motifs: factional struggles, the ignorance of command, hollow rhetoric and so forth, and among the Trojans the competing impulses of martial romanticism, peace-seeking self-delusion and growing despair. With a cast of just over a dozen there can be no all-encompassing battles, but Kevin McCurdy choreographs the big routines and directs the one-on-one fights with an impressive originality: the Trojan Hector’s tussles with Patroclus and then Achilles are thrilling.
The theatre’s in-the-round configuration makes it impossible to bring on any credibly sized wooden horse and the final battle is a significant absence: we cut from the emergence of the Greeks out of a large wooden drum (standing for the horse) to a resigned commentary by Zeus and Hera, to the departure of the Greeks having left the city of Troy empty of life and property alike – and, significantly, having failed to properly replenish their own sense of identity. We know, as they do not, what is to come. In fact, what is to come in a few weeks is the stage version of Derek Walcott’s poetic refraction of these legends, Omeros, at Shakespeare’s Globe . . .