A CAFE in Hebden Bridge railway station is perhaps an incongruous starting point for a play about Ancient Greece, but it was here that Simon Armitage hatched a plan to bring the story of the Trojan War to the stage. “I was sitting there discussing Achilles and Agamemnon while the tea urn was gurgling in the background,” he says.
The Last Days of Troy, commissioned by the Royal Exchange Theatre, is Armitage’s retelling of a story made famous by Homer and Virgil. The play, published this week by Faber & Faber, has just begun a five week run in Manchester and then heads to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London next month.
Although best known as a poet, Armitage has shown himself to be a master of the written word in all its forms and during the past decade has adapted and translated several epic works, including The Death of King Arthur and Homer’s Odyssey.
“One of the reasons I do these projects every now and again is for that challenge of working with people and to do something collaborative,” he says. “Writing a play is collaborative, you’re in discussion with the director about the use of space, you talk to the actors and as the play develops there’s an increasing number of voices. You have set designers, costume designers, so there’s a real growing chorus of which you’re just a part.”
But writing a play is a different kind of challenge to writing a poem. “One of the big differences is the size of a play compared to a poem. With a play you have this panoramic story and performance on a grand scale, whereas I see my poems as being more like snow globes, microcosms writ large.”
Then there’s the text itself. “Until you actually hear the words in the actors’ mouths you don’t know how it will work. There was one scene where Patroclus tells Achilles to cut off a lock of his hair and the guy playing Achilles doesn’t have a hair on his head,” he says, laughing.
Some writers prefer to stick to what they know, but the Yorkshire-born poet enjoys the challenge and in this instance already had a pre-exisitng story. “This means you don’t have to worry about structure and characters because they’re already laid out for you and this allows you to explore it in terms of dialogue and language,” he says. “I really agonise over my poems and they can leave me scratching my head, but with a play I find I can write two, or three scenes in a day and that’s very liberating.”
Although he admits it did throw up a few numerical challenges. “If you think that Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships and that each ship carried 200 men, and you imagine that Troy had an equal number, then we’re already talking about 400,000 people and we have a company of nine or 10 to tell this story.”
It’s a story most people are at least vaguely familiar with. “I think people know scraps about these myths, they probably know about Achilles and they’ve probably heard of the wooden horse, but they perhaps aren’t quite as familiar with the whole narrative and where it fits in with history and myth. There are gaps here and I suppose I’ve tried to fill these.”
Armitage, who still lives in West Yorkshire, has tried to add flesh to the bones of these myths. “For me it was about re-imagining what people might say to each other because with both Homer and Virgil there’s not much conversation. There’s a lot of rhetorical speech but there isn’t the rapid fire dialogue.”
These myths have certainly stood the test of time but what is their enduring allure? “I used to think that these tales from Ancient Greece were the template for all contemporary stories, but I think also they’re just very good stories with great characters, they’re irresistible.”
The Last Days Of Troy, published by Faber & Faber, is out now priced £14.99.