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Simon Armitage Talks Classics and Context

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

A poetry reading and talk from Simon Armitage had the McKellen Studio Theatre packed full, with an excited audience hanging on the poet’s every word. Sixth Form students of English Language and Literature were invited to attend this special event, as were boys in Years 10 and 11 identified as Able, Gifted and Talented in English, and those studying the complement of subjects delivered by the Classics Department at GCSE.

Mr Armitage began with a number of poetry readings, which he framed with anecdotes about how he came to write each particular piece. He began with the ballad-like ‘Song of the West Men’, about the ordeals of a fisherman, before moving on to ‘Kid’ – a poem from the point of view of Batman’s Robin, written about DC Comics’s decision to scrap the character. This was particularly interesting, as Mr Armitage took the time to explain that it is not just about the specific instance of a comic-book sidekick moving on, but more generally it is also about the anxiety and thrill of flying the nest. He also talked about how this was a very personal poem for him.

He went on to talk about his radio adaptation of the Odyssey for the BBC, and the difficulties he faced in creating his version, Homer’s Odyssey. He read an extract titled ‘Then all the men came and added their weight’, which is about Odysseus’s victory over the Cyclops.

He also discussed The Last Days of Troy, his stage play adaptation of the end of the Iliad which was originally commissioned for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester but went on to be performed at Shakespeare’s Globe. This again posed challenges, not least because Homer’s version of the story does not provide an ending, and he had to call on Virgil to complete the tale. Although much of the adaptation is written as dialogue, he described how particular moments, such as prayers or particularly poignant monologues, are elevated into poetry. He read out one such moment: the dead Patroclus returning to visit Achilles one final time as a ghost. This was a particularly moving moment which held the audience rapt.

The final poem of the reading was ‘The English Astronaut’, and continued the theme of “failed heroics” that came up in The Last Days of Troy. Again Mr Armitage gave some context to the piece, saying that he is very interested in the things that England does badly that other countries seem to do well – in this instance space travel. Like ‘Kid’, this wryly humorous piece got the boys chuckling as they listened.

The boys were also treated to a “world premiere” reading of a poem he wrote about crossing waters and being left in the lurch, which he started to compose when he was walking the south-west coast near Hale in Cornwall. The story of how the poem came about gave a unique insight into Mr Armitage’s writing process and how he finds inspiration in his life.

This was a subject he returned to in the question and answer session. The boys also enthusiastically asked questions about his work, some referencing particular poems they had read. He was asked about the earring in ‘My father thought bloody queer’ – which he still wears to this day, despite his father’s advice to “take it out and leave it out next year”!

One of the boys asked his views on how to keep the Classics relatable, to which he responded that these works deal in human truths and universal truths so they are still relevant. However, he advised that one way to ensure people keep reading the Classics is to keep translating them into modern English, as in thirty years’ time the translations of today will start to sound dated. He also talked about how he came to Classics later in life, and found that these old stories have shaped the way he interprets things since he read them.

Following the reading and question and answer session, Mr Armitage led a scriptwriting workshop with a group of twenty-three boys in Years 10 and 11 who are studying drama. In lessons, these boys are currently working on their own production of Mr Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy and Homer’s Odyssey. Some of them also watched the premiere of The Last Days of Troy at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

They have been considering how to adapt epic poetry into dramatic scripts, and so this was a really valuable experience for them. The session was focused on these concepts, and particularly Mr Armitage looked at staging Odysseus’s trip to the world of the dead.

He discussed the problems of dramatising such a scene with the boys as well as the more general problems with adapting the source material. They talked about the number of characters needed on stage and who would be essential to this scene, as well as the idea of what hell and the dead would physically look like. He then got the boys to take part in a writing exercise, where they imagined themselves as one of the five characters they decided were needed and answered a series of questions from their point of view. The only requirement Mr Armitage gave them was that they write in an interesting way, whether that be dramatically or poetically.

There was just enough time for a brief discussion about some of the points raised by the questions before the end of the session. Mr Armitage finally set the boys a final task to complete if they had time later, and asked them to start creating dialogue line by line in groups with each person writing for the particular character they had imagined. This would not create a final script, but would inspire some great moment that might be used in a final version.

This workshop gave the boys plenty to think about both in terms of scriptwriting and adaptation, and they gained approaches to writing original script and ideas for improvised scenes from the session.

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Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage, ahead of his presentation to the Senior Boys