Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Trojan War & Peace

Phil Willmott
Steam Industry Free Theatre
The Scoop

Stephen Billington as Agamemnon with the Owl Credit: Sheila Burnett
Stephen Billington as the god Apollo Credit: Sheila Burnett
Nicholas Corre as Sinon the slave builds the Wooden Horse Credit: Sheila Burnett
Stephen Billington (front) as Agamemnon in Agamemnon, with James Horne as Old Soldier, Florent Bressange, Jordan Lee as Soldier amd John Last as Herald Credit: Sheila Burnett

It is ten years since Steam Industry inaugurated drama at the Scoop, the oval amphitheatre performance space at the foot of City Hall on London's South Bank.

They began in 2003 when Phil Willmott directed a modern dress production of Oedipus the King which over just 16 performances attracted an audience of 5,500. Over the past nine years they have gone from strength to strength, so first warm congratulations to director Willmott and producer Suzanna Rosenthal. It's a considerable achievement made more so by the variety and high quality of the work they have presented.

Over the years I may have slung one or two critical brickbats but these performances are always something to look forward to and to remember with pleasure with one play aimed at a family audience and the other more adult fare. They have included plays by Brecht, Euripides, Lorca, Aeschylus and Bernard Shaw as well as adaptations from Jules Verne, Kipling, Robert Louis Stephenson and Kenneth Graham. This year we have three plays that are played each evening Thursdays to Sundays.

The Trojan War

The evening kicks off at 6:30 with The Trojan War. It's described by the producers as "a romp"—and they couldn't be more accurate. A long way from Homer and the Iliad, it could be subtitled "Helen's Story" for it takes us from the Spartan princess Helen (dark beauty Latoya Lees, not the usual blonde) choosing a husband through the events that led up to the war, skating over the ten years of the war itself to the building of the Trojan Horse that led to the Greek victory.

It is introduced by Helen's slave Sinon (Nicholas Corre), an engaging, slightly camp young man from Southend who's a sort of Buttons character and the whole show has a rather panto feel with its somewhat jokey characters and jolly songs and dances. Helen's friend Cassandra from Troy (Ruth Pickett) is around making prophesies people ignore—including one that the children of Clytemnestra, Helen's half-sister (Natalia Campbell), will hate her. Helen's suitors are Stephen Billington's self-important Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, his non-too-bright brother Menelaus (John Last), their friend Odysseus of Ithaca (Robert Welling) and self-described "pretty boy" Paris, Prince of Troy (Jordan Lee), who thinks Helen is almost as lovely as his own hair.

Paris has equipped himself with a magic potion to make Helen love him—but Sinon refuses to give it to her. Instead, a thirsty Agamemnon takes a swig and falls for Helen's half-sister Clytemnestra, more palatable for a young audience than gaining her by killing her husband and her children. Agamemnon does still have to sacrifice his daughter to get a wind to Troy—for as well as being a romp this opener sets up the situation for the serious plays that follow—but this play stays resolutely upbeat. The Greek leaders swell their fleet with offers from the audience where unsuspecting punters discover they are ancient rulers and one pair of guys is identified as Achilles and Patroclus (heroes and interior designers). One lady who discovers she is the Amazon Hippolyta bravely steps out and arm wrestles Agamemnon and some of the smallest youngsters are called on to help create a wooden horse.

Throw in some gods and goddesses, doubled by those playing the ancient royals, a wise owl and you've got sixty minutes of fun. There is no sign of Homer's bloody bodies dragged behind chariots, the savage sack and burning, women enslaved and male children massacred. All that is for the grown-ups to remember if they come back half an hour later to see the next part of the story.

Agamemnon

The story-book look of the first play gives place to real-life modernity as we move on to the adaptation of The Oresteia. Like Aeschylus' original, it begins with the watchman looking out for the beacon that announces the fleet's return from Troy. Here, James Horne plays him as a bemedalled veteran in civvies in a wheelchair. There's no long speech about the dawn and no classical chorus. Returning Agamemnon is preceded by a uniformed Herald (John Last) to make sure things go smoothly and wounded soldiers are given first place among the returning heroes.

While her husband seems to want to make things more low key, Clytemnestra insists on pulling up out all the stops in her demonstrative welcome home but it is not long before a withdrawn and frightened Cassandra, brought back as Agamemnon's booty, is rampaging all over the place manically screeching chilling prophecies. While Clytemnestra is inside with her husband, her lover, Aegisthus, played with gentle urbanity by Phil Willmott, reveals the awful back-story of the House of Atreus and the horrors that have been perpetrated.

When Clytemnestra appears, her garments blood-soaked, she tells the people of Mycenae that "reason calls a truce" but as most of us know the call for revenge will continue, just as it still does in so many parts of the world. In this treatment Willmott, as adapter, maintains the classical form of the ancient original while giving it contemporary resonance. His cast makes the transition from pantomime levity to fatal reality so completely that, although the characters are played by the same actors, there is no vestige here of the tongue in cheek treatment that he gives his opening amusement.

Orestes

The final play in this new trilogy continues with similar gravity and I believe carries the story not just through the next stage of the revenge drama but to the hounding of Orestes by the Furies and his being judged in the presence of Apollo and Athene, with the audience making up the final jury in an on-line vote that will determine a verdict at the season's final performance.

Sadly, though the press night performance was begun, the rain which arrived during the break between the second and third plays got stronger and for safety reasons the performance had to be abandoned, so I am not able to fairly comment on it. However, I did see enough to want to go back to see its completion.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton