Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Show that Sank a Thousand Careers

I had in mind to watch Troy: Fall of a City twice: once with my classicist hat on and once with my ‘I like watching TV’ one. I thought that even if I became frustrated or struggled to enjoy aspects with the former hat on, the latter might be more successful. As it happened, I can’t face watching this show ever again. Nor is it so mentally taxing that I would need to watch it more than once to take it all in. In fact, I found I had time to start writing an article and make a cup of tea without missing much. Except maybe a few extremely sweaty sex scenes.

Films and TV dramas based on great classical texts tend to fill me with both joy and loathing. The number of children who take Ancient History based on having watched the dreadful 300 is great, right? A film has made them want to study a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, my own experience is that they aren’t that interested in finding out what Herodotus actually wrote about the Persian Wars. But then there are shows like Rome and obviously the film Gladiator and I reason that getting anyone talking about or interested in the ancient world must be a good thing.

Well. In walks the BBC’s new drama.

I’ll say now that I presume there is no need for ‘spoiler alerts’. It’s a three thousand(ish)-year-old story, after all. Paris, a son of King Priam of Troy, is asked to settle an argument: which of the three goddesses is the most beautiful: Hera, Athena or Aphrodite? They’ve found a golden apple addressed ‘to the fairest’ and each thinks it’s meant for her. Hera offers Paris a huge kingdom, Athena offers him great wisdom and victory in combat (surely that would win him Hera’s offer too? – just a thought) and Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful (mortal, presumably) woman in the world. In case you weren’t sure which way it was going to go, we have first met Paris about a minute before this scene in flagrante in the fields and charmingly referring to the woman between his legs as a beast. Great chat, your highness. ‘Love’, sex and charm win the day and he awards Aphrodite the apple.

There are significant problems with trying to tell the story of the Trojan War. One being that there is no one story. That could make it all rather fun though. The mythology is that Paris stealing the most beautiful woman in the world away from her husband causes the outbreak of the Trojan War. But you have a certain freedom around that; you can impose your own narratives on the myth just as the Greeks did. I am not too worried then by the writers’ choice here of Paris myth. Their version is that Paris was exposed as a baby due to various bad omens, found and raised by a shepherd, Agelaus, and identified by the king years later by his birthmark. There are lots of versions of what happened to Paris but they all run along roughly similar lines with the same result – he is returned to his family.

The problem is the manner in which all of this is portrayed in the drama. There is no sense of timing whatsoever. The opening scene is a pretty graphic one of Hecuba giving birth to Paris and her daughter Cassandra screaming as she sees a dark future brought about by this baby. It is then the work of fifteen minutes to see Paris enjoying himself immensely in a field, meeting three goddesses, Hermes and Zeus himself (seriously?), mooning some princes whilst riding one of their stolen horses in a race, fighting his brother Hector, being recognised by his true father, abandoning his old life, sleeping with a nameless woman, and then being sent to King Menelaus on a diplomatic mission. There is no indication that more than one night has passed and he’s sent, without any other representatives of the royal family, to meet another king. He’s said himself he can barely even speak properly. Fortunately, he turns that around in a speech that pleases Menelaus, stumbling only over the word ‘turmeric’.

The Iliad takes twenty-four books to describe the events of a few days of the Trojan War (OK, it alludes to its history as well, but still). Perhaps the writers could have allowed a little more time to introduce events so that we aren’t hit with each plot point as subtly as if a klaxon went off whenever we needed to pay attention. I felt as though Hermes might as well have been speaking in capitals. ‘These are the GODESSES. This one’s APHRODITE. LOOK HOW HOT SHE IS.’ On that, I would have thought a major problem to address is how to represent the gods, even whether to represent them at all. They need something that sets them apart from mortals at the very least. I’m not sure big make-up was the answer. In Homer they are always notably taller than mortals, stunning, positively gleaming, obviously separate even when in human form. Paris ought to know that he’s in the presence of some beings whom you really don’t want to meet without having bathed first. Instead he stands there stupidly and says, ‘goddesses?’, as if he were as surprised as he would be to find that it was grain for dinner again. Shouldn't we see him honouring them or something?   

If you think the question of representing divinity not satisfactorily answered by a lot of shadowy eye make up à la Glamour magazine, wait until you see King Priam. That Moustache. And a lot of eyeliner. I can say only that even David Threlfall cannot rescue the situation. Nor are the random arrows drawn on his wife’s arms particularly convincing. Needless to say Hecuba, Andromache, the goddesses, all the women are hopelessly beautiful. Even though there has been some attempt to represent Cassandra as the girl in The Ring (because prophets don’t get hairbrushes, do they). This creates another problem. How can Helen conceivably count as the most beautiful woman in the world? Or is this an intelligent commentary on perceptions of beauty? (*goes to consult Roger Scruton’s ‘Beauty'*) No. It isn’t.

How do you cast the face that launched a thousand ships? I have an idea. Let’s find a really beautiful woman. Like, smoking hot. Someone who doesn’t mind a fair amount of on-screen nudity. And, then: let’s put her in an ostrich costume. No fooling. That is what they have done. I was laughing so hard when I saw her that I almost missed the shot a few minutes later when Paris is looking puzzled because he has stumbled in on a gratuitous lesbian drug-fuelled orgy followed by an ostrich. Or possibly an emu. The only reason I would watch this show ever again is to check that point and have another good laugh.

The stilted dialogue saves nothing: Hermione, Helen’s nine year old daughter (she looks about thirteen in the show, she’s nine according to my Dictionary of Classical Mythology), speaks petulantly about her mother and then apologises to Paris for not being ‘good with men’; Priam announces that he has heard ‘Paris is staying longer’ at Menelaus’ palace (again, there is no sense that more than a day has passed – I suppose it was the same day fast service of carrier pigeon he used); Paris comments on Helen’s beauty and then takes a line straight out of the ‘awkward at parties mother-in-law’ playbook and asks her husband ‘so, how did you two get together?’.

Conveniently, Menelaus is called to Crete to deal with the fact his father has just died but insists both that his guest stay and his wife stay with him. It takes about nine seconds after he leaves for Paris and Helen to rip off their clothes. She rejected him about in a previous scene roughly forty-seven seconds before but claims quickly now that she’s been going mad with lust for three days, just in case you were questioning the timing of all this.

The oddest thing is the complete illogicality here – there seems to have been a decision to portray Helen as a ‘Strong Woman’, choosing her own path when a woman couldn’t do that. Except that Paris gives her a brief lecture on how she should do what she wants and be free and then says he knows he should have her because the gods said so. Well which is it? Freedom or fate? Again later when he’s trying to convince her to choose to come with him, he fails to notice that she’s compelled to do so by the gods.

Helen is one of the most fascinating characters in literature – and not just because of her beauty. There are so many versions of what happens to her and what drives her. Why does she leave Menelaus? Is it her choice? Some scenes in the Iliad suggest that she is forced into being with Paris by Aphrodite. Some don’t. Her story raises the whole fascinating question about the power of the gods versus that of fate. It asks whether she had any semblance of free will or responsibility for her actions. Here she is portrayed as a woman who tries to ‘do her duty’ as a queen and wife but is powerless to resist Aphrodite/lust. That would be a good story if the writers weren’t busy trying to pretend that this is an ‘ahead her time’ feminist. She doesn’t choose her own path, Paris; she’s forced to lock herself in a box for you so you can ship her off to Troy.

Perhaps a show that causes this much inward debate for me is better than I give it credit for. There is a really wonderful forty seconds in which Helen tells the story of Actaeon. The whole drama is shot beautifully. Almost everyone’s hair is immaculate. Maybe it’s mocking itself good-naturedly when a longhaired poodle pops up in the background of one scene… But it feels like it’s trying so hard it is ridiculous. If all the writers wanted was to get to the battle scenes (and from the ‘next time on Troy’ trailer, that looks possible) then start there. Don’t try and shove about forty different mythologies into one hour alongside Paris having sex with three different women, behaving oddly at best with a nine-year old and fondling a fresco (yes, that happens). The only thing I can say for this show is that immediately after watching, I got down my copy of Homer’s Iliad and my Dictionary of Classical Mythology and had a lovely afternoon with them.

NB: Classicists, for a really good laugh, read the Radio Times ‘Meet the cast of Troy. A little taster, from one actor: “Odysseus is the hero of Homer’s later work, The Odyssey, but learning about his role in the Trojan War has been a total discovery”...    

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