Updated: Monday, 6th April 2020 @ 8:41am

Theatre review: The Last Days of Troy @ Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Theatre review: The Last Days of Troy @ Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

| By Katie Moore

In his retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, Simon Armitage too has created the stuff of legend.

The play remains loyal to the original tale and while it spans almost three hours, the combination of fast-paced narrative and some stunning visual effects and battle scenes makes for an extremely watchable performance.

This is one of the most exciting uses to date of the Royal Exchange’s beautiful and versatile theatre space, the audience having the sense of being on the edge of a bloody battlefield throughout.

From a design perspective the stark mixture of black and red and white – wood, metal, fine fabrics and plenty of blood – is both disturbing and irresistible.

And without giving away any spoilers, the iconic Trojan Horse scene is fantastically executed and unbearably tense.

Armitage has achieved a fine balance between revering an old classic and offering a modern day commentary on war.

This is fulfilled through the character of Zeus – part formidable god, part tramp – played by the bright-eyed and agile Richard Bremmer.

In an ingenious and seamless technique, Bremmer guides us through the tale both as a slightly henpecked but almighty ruler atop Mount Olympus, and an old man in 2014 selling little Zeus figurines at what is now a tourist destination.

Lily Cole’s Helen of Troy though lacks depth even though she is ethereal, beautiful and suitably aloof in a hooded white gown that contrasts with her mane of red hair.

The action is wonderfully paced, managing to reflect underlying urgency and a feeling of fatigue; after all, the Greeks have been camped on the beaches of Troy in stalemate for a decade before the play even begins.

Comic elements are vitally dispersed among scenes of death and misery, such as the contrast between brothers Hector and Paris – one a warrior, the other a lover.

The giggling and bickering gods also offer light relief, though often painfully followed up by some tragic event or other resulting from their puppetry.

Downton Abbey’s Clare Calbraith is a standout performer, playing the goddess mother of Achilles and the wife of Hector and portraying the simple human impact of war.

Curiously the play has no one hero to root for. Instead there are many, all of whom have weaknesses, which is perhaps what makes for such a gripping production.