In these days of films, videos, CD Roms and all the other highly-advanced means of story-telling, how refreshing it is to find a production that goes right back to basics. Kings, poet Christopher Logue's version of the first two books of Homer's Iliad, as performed by Alan Howard, is a tribute to the art of oral story-telling - and a riveting one. There are no sets, no costumes, no trimmings; Howard, dressed in a blue suit, perches on a high stool, with Logue seated to one side at a desk. From the outset, it is plain that we are going to rely on the power of Homer's words, on Logue's translation of them and Howard's speaking of them, to take us into the world of the Trojan war. Since all three are masters of their art, it works brilliantly.
The story starts with the fateful quarrel between Agamemnon, king and leader of the Greek army, and Achilles, his finest warrior. From the first words, with which Howard draws you on to the beach to watch Achilles summon his mother, Thetis of the Sea, to help him be revenged on Agamemnon, you are pulled into the story. Logue's version is marvellous: pliant, clear, musical and sometimes enjoyably cheeky. He brings the world of the poem vividly alive. His images are startling and effective -
"Death sticks to you like stench to stool"; "I hate this king. He is a needle in my bread" - and his ability to conjure up the tension in the festering army camp is impressive. "Low ceiling; sticky air," says Howard, and you are there with him in the room, feeling the incipient confrontation.
The squabbling, capricious gods are also vividly drawn and Logue even pinches lines from Milton for fun. But while his version is witty, it also conveys the thuggishness of the army and their blood-thirsty design. It is with the promise given to the soldiers that, when they have finished routing Troy, every one of them will be given "a Trojan she to rape and rule" that the sickening reality of war is punched home. Logue's choice of the word "she" to denote women is a clever one, emphasising the chauvinistic, proprietorial attitude of the soldiers to the women they seize.
Howard does not act out the parts as such but, in a beautifully phrased and paced performance (directed by Liane Aukin), summons each character with a slight change of expression and voice. The proud and wounded Achilles, the peevish and selfish Agamemnon, the grumbling soldiers, the scheming gods - all are there before you.
Occasionally he moves around the stage to make a point and as Odysseus, rousing the disheartened army, he advances into the auditorium and gives us the pep talk. Mostly, however, he relies on his voice, which he uses as a painter uses colour, and his mournful, expressive face. A shift of pace, a raised eyebrow, and we are with a sceptical soldier; a change of attitude, a widened eye, and we are with Thetis, plaintively putting her case to the great god, Zeus. It is a virtuoso performance and a splendid reminder of how powerful and significant these ancient stories remain.
At the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6, to April 19
Financial Times, 10.4.1997.
It's a bit of a shock finding Homer in Kilburn, north London. Its enterprising little theatre, The Tricycle, more often peddles Irish and Caribbean writers. The signs did not look good for this staging of the first two books of the Iliad when adaptor Christopher Logue and performer Alan Howard walk on stage looking like Classics masters at a minor public school. But then came those striking opening lines: 'Think of the east Aegean Sea by night . . .' And bang, you're right in the middle of the fray. Agamemnon is being overbearing, Achilles is in a terrible sulk over the loss of Chryseis, and the gods are getting in on the act. 'How can a mortal make a god smile? Tell him his plans.'
Logue's bracing and racy free adaptation does all the work. Howard, perched precariously on a bar stool and then moving through the audience, embellishes it with that voice that is like a long wallow in a hot scented bath. It is dream radio, but surprisingly engrossing theatre too: Howard and Logue's presence is not an irrelevance but a focusing device that places the piece firmly in the storytelling tradition. Fortunately, there is no 'wine-dark sea'. Instead it looks like 'metal plate'. Logue drops in the anachronisms like little arrows: Ajax is 'grim under his tan as Rommel after Alamein'; the eyelets on his armour are 'like runway lights'.
The adaptation is not just witty but beautiful, echoing with the fury and futility of endless war waged by heroic men, wept over by invisible women. The intensity can be hard to take over 90 minutes. At times the deluge of words just washes over you before sweeping you up again and carrying you forward. There's only one word for it, Herculean.
At The Tricycle, London, until April 19
The Guardian, 9.4.1997.
AS a youngster, for some reason, I remember getting quite struck on The Iliad. I read it, of course, in simplified versions but for a while, I became quite haunted by the Greeks and Trojans in a way even now I can't quite put my finger on. Something of this came back to me last night watching Alan Howard in Christopher Logue's idiosyncratic, spry version taken from the first two books of Homer's Iliad.
Howard is probably one of the few actors in Britain with the ability to ride a text that, to say the least, takes some getting around. Those names for a start: "Blood bound Allies - satraps of Macedon, of Thrace, of Bosphorous, Marmarine Phrygiland and Hittite Anatolium Beyond;" etc, etc. How does he do it?
Liane Aukin's production encourages Howard to stroke the words, not assault them. He stands there, with the dumpling Logue at his side and for an hour and a half rides the rhythms of Logue's bucking, exquisitely cheeky poetry with subtle shifts of tone and emphasis, now stepping down to merge into the audience, towards the end stumbling a little - but still fired and firing us with an eye witness account more vivid than any BBC news flash.
It all becomes so clear, so enthralling - even if, from time to time the surge and density of Logue's imagery can dash you to the ground. It doesn't matter. Once again we are back amid the titanic madness of it all, the hubris and the moonlit beach before Troy: Achilles in high dudgeon, Agamemnon intransigent, Nestor, Odysseus, and plain foot soldiers thirsting for home after nine long years of siege, the Gods, as always, meritricious - story telling at its seductive best.
Tricycle Theatre, London
The Herald (Glasgow), 5.4.1997