The Last Days of Troy is a reinterpretation of the siege of Troy, showing us the horrors of war during the centenary of WWI. While Homer’s Iliad is a poetic recitation of the story of the siege, encapsulating the drama and bravery of both sides , Simon Armitage’s rewrite is less than emphatic about what plays out during the siege. The play overall is narrated by a decrepit Zeus, portrayed fantastically by Richard Bremmer, who, while immortal, has aged with loss of power and belief in him. His narration is reflective on the suffering and outcome of the war, a man who has now seen his empire’s demise and takes a more critical outlook having lost the national identity that once existed.
The narration opens setting the scene, the Greeks having fought for ten years now, and we are parachuted into a conversation between Odysseus, Agamemnon and Achilles. In the conversation we are told the soldiers are getting sick, morale is low and little gains have been made over the ten years. The argument shows the two arguments over the war, Achilles asks for it to end, to give up the war, when the reason for fighting is only based on the King’s pride having been debased. This is contrasted to Agamemnon who refuses to see the plight of the men. He claims it’s made up, that the physical illnesses his troops are experiencing are rumours.
Interestingly, the position of Odysseus is not one of heroism, but instead as political mediator. His role becomes more manipulative throughout the play, while in the epic one would be more inclined to call Odysseus a pragmatic soldier than a manipulative politician. Conveying the change in roles for Odysseus is down to the actor Colin Tierney; some of Odysseus’ acts could be played as being for the greater good of the Greeks, but instead come across out as being out of personal motivation, seemingly deceiving everyone around him -including his superior – like the Peter Mandelson of the Greek world.
My sentiments about the play were echoed by the recent review of it in the FT, in that I also feel that the choice of Armitage is not to attempt to echo issues from other wars, but instead shows commonalities which can easily be seen throughout many, if not all, wars. And I believe it is especially poignant to use that of the Greek Epic to highlight this, to show that these concepts are age old and even when battles were being fought for the gods there were more earthly gains to be made and the actors of these wars knew this. The use of hidden agendas and scapegoating are nothing new, and is happening at various levels throughout wars whether it be the gods or the politicians, they are not attempts at improving the conditions of a populace or saving morality. They are usually an attempt at manipulating power.
The only true positive we can take from the Last Days of Troy is from Hera’s sentiment “New civilisation, new gods,” that power structures only exist as long people support them and believe in them. While war can change them, so can the turn of the populace against the status quo.
The Last Days of Troy was at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre and then The Globe Theatre, London