Director Lianne Aukin sits giggling with colleagues Christopher Logue, the poet, and actor Alan Howard. A photographer hovers, chiding them for having too much fun. He wants to see a bit of concentration, he wants to see them working. "But this is funny," says Aukin trawling through Logue's latest "account" of Homer as if it were a comedy script. "Watch Greece die," she reads dramatically. "That'll bring the house down, won't it Alan?"
It's not just the sherry, the three have an irresponsibly jokey working relationship. Aukin, finally trying to please the lensman, has a hard time remembering what her role is supposed to look like: "What do people do when they direct? Oh yes, they point a lot don't they....."
The three have worked together before on a stage adaptation and radio broadcast of Logue's War Music, published in 1981 and based on Homer's Iliad. Now they are assembled in Aukin's airy garden flat in Hampstead for the first day of rehearsal on Kings, a Fringe performance of Logue's recently published poem of the same name tackling Books I and II of the epic.
Kings has also been broadcast on Radio 3, but Logue stresses that the Fringe show, encouraged by publisher Faber, will be something different. "It isn't a reading any longer. Alan has learned most of the text so he will be doing it as an active performance."
Aside from the fact that he will be up on stage with Howard, he is vague about the content of the show: "It's our first day. We don't know exactly what will happen...."
He slopes off to the loo, leaving Aukin improvising: "It's very clear that it will be very much a theatre performance and very different from the broadcast...." Hitting upon a comparison whuch has Howard chipping in with his support, she adds: "It's really a very exciting form of storytelling. That's what one wants to achieve, storytelling in performance. It's not a dramatisation with props and costumes."
Such is the pleasantness of the group that there is no apparent discomfort when Logue later chooses to nip this particular idea in the bud. "I'm not inclined to stress the storytelling element of the text too much. It's narrative but there is no story in a way - the Greeks went to Troy and it was a disaster. Everyone knows what happened........ But I don't really like things when they just depend upon suspense."
He is more fascinated in character. "There's a big philosophical question as to the difference between a myth and an epic. The deconstructionists have done better work on this than anyone. In folk tales there is very little character. You're handling not even stereotypes but very simple elements like a wolf and a man in a forest. Everything then depends on what happens. But in a dramatic narrative, including epic, you're handling character, and the Iliad is where characters were invented. Two thirds of the Iliad is people speaking. The other third is people fighting." A throaty laugh starts to disrupt his flow. "That's all there is talking and fighting!" he splutters.
Logue has had a chequered past, as editor of True Stories in Private Eye, as a protestor for CND (jailed once for three weeks), as aauthor of an erotic novel, as screenwriter for Ken Russell on Savage Messiah and as occasional actor - he played the Player King opposite Jonathan Pryce's Hamlet at the Royal Court. Even his poetry has led him into strange areas - he put together a compilation of reputedly filthy limericks and once provided poems for a Findus Foods calendar of "lovely ladies".
There is an air of unpredictability in him even now, but one-time RSC actor Alan Howard puts the conversation back on an even keel agreeing reverently that the interplay of personality in Kings is as exciting as any what-happens-next momentum. "The confrontations and the suspense between characters - that's a fantastic dynamic."
Logue becomes serious himself. He finds another layer of interest in the workings of the creative team itself. "Poetry readings have a rather poor reputation, rightly, and it's partly because the readers are unprofessional; they give the impression they are doing the audience a favour..... But also most poetry readings are not critical events. They are full of self-indulgence. I've found that when I'm working on text with Lianne and Alan it's a critical event, because I alter the text in relation to what I hear. I start off with one text and I finish with another." That chuckle again.
Logue himself admits that from the director's point of view "a lot of writers are so vain about what they've done, it's a nightmare having them in the bloody theatre", but as it is, Howard and Aukin find his presence crucial. "When the actor and writer know each other, it's a terrific inspiration for an actor to say words which have been written by someone who is there with him," says Howard.
That the text should not be graven in stone is hardly surprising considering Logue's magpie-like enthusiasm for picking up inspiration from wherever he can find it. Howard talks grandly about the fact that "you can feel Milton, you can feel Shakespeare, yet the poem is absolutely of today." Logue prefers to acknowledge his translating predecessors by saying: "Of course I look at Pope, of course I look at Chapman - to see what they did, to see if there's anything I want."
Kings and War Music surprised reviewers by their modernity, the controversially anachronistic images. There are references to horses rising "as in dreams, or at Cape Kennedy", or to "a helicopter whumping in the dunes", to the eyelets on the armour of Ajax as akin to "runway lights". Logue says he feels no pressure to update images to add in the odd Gulf term for example - but he comments: "If you're reading a good newspaper and there's a good image you just take it. It might come from the Gulf war. It might come from what's going on in Croatia. It might come from a pub fight down the road." "Seen one war, seen them all," adds Aukin drily.
Since his marriage to critic Rosemary Hill, the 64-year-old says he has become less lazy, but even reciting his working day seems to tire him."I now go to work like any other working man," he titters. "I start at about eight and I finish about half past 12 or one. Then I do a bit in the afternoon. But I get tired - though not too tired to do other things like shopping or paying bills or trying to get people to pay me more money - all of which is very exhausting.
Scotland on Sunday, 18.8.91.
(Kings was performed at Assembly/Wildcat, The Meadows, August 1991.)