Burly men in plastic armour do their best battle acting. Commanders pace back and forth, mulling their tactics aloud. Warriors clash flimsy swords on tinny shields, then throw each other to the floor and wrestle. They beat their chests and shout their names in each others’ faces. “We are Trojans,” roars one battle-hardened hero. “Of Troy!”
If all this shows up the absurdity of machismo – poet Simon Armitage makes clear that a war fought over a woman, Helen of Troy, with women as its spoils, is a war fought by brutes – it also flags the absurdity of theatre. Nick Bagnall’s production probably found a coiled intensity at the Manchester Royal Exchange, but on the Globe’s wooden stage, out in the open air, it looks like so much play-acting. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great fun to watch – like Battlestar Galactica at its best/worst – but you can’t take it half as seriously as it takes itself.
Elsewhere, its tone u-turns: the gods saunter through battle scenes like a sitcom family at a garden party, debating whether or not to intervene, while Odysseus – brainy and battle-weary – concocts fresh schemes for the conflict. This is, remember, a decade-old war, still “no closer to resolution.” Armitage lets you make your own links to Iraq, and his patchwork version essentially recounts the myth as is, stressing only that it is couched in ideal terms of beauty, brawn and brains.
You can’t fault the cast’s commitment. Jake Fairbrother’s Achilles is properly steroidal, while Tom Stuart preens to perfection as Paris. Richard Bremmer’s Zeus provides light relief, forever bickering with Gillian Bevan’s sarky Hera.
Headline casting provides the weak link: Lily Cole might look the part as Helen of Troy, but she can’t act it. She delivers her lines like the speaking clock; the voice that launched a thousand pips.
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By chance and not design I saw the world premier of this play at the Royal Exchange theatre on Friday, 8th. May. The author, Simon Armitage, presents a version of the Iliad with, it
seems, additions from the Aeneid to tie up loose ends concerning what
happens to the main human characters. It seems from what he has said
that he intends the story to resonate with recent (Western) adventures
in invasion, though this wasn't obvious to me. More salient is the framing provided by presenting contemporary Zeus and Hera whose disputes coloured the vicissitudes of the original Trojan war as somewhat hasbeens. Zeus, for example, now carries a battered case of trinkets to sell to tourists. Armitage's text sounds well, though is a little long in parts. (I began to wilt during the listing of each Greek state's contribution to the war.) I thought the general presentation was good, with creative use of the possibilities of the Royal Exchange's circular space. One fault was that if an actor's voice dropped and they happened to be facing away from me. I couldn't hear what they said. I thought the acting was good with convincing levels of energy and pathos. The ensemble playing of all the actors was excellent, though Richard Bremmer as Zeus, Jake Fairbrother as Achilles and Colin Tierney as Odysseus were strong leads. I didn't know Lily Cole who played Helen was a supermodel, and so judged her on how she acted in the play. I thought she played her part well, and, at a point where she sang a song to remind the Greeks of their home, conjured mystery as well as melody. I hope this play has the success it deserves. 4.5 stars out of 5...