A Scottish patriot dubbed Edinburgh ''the Athens of the North'', and though a Stoppard character crisply dismissed it as ''the Reykjavik of the South'', it is the Greeks who will be having their way at the Dream Tent, a new Edinburgh Fringe venue on the Meadows. Christopher Logue's surging version of Books 1 and 2 of the Iliad, succinctly titled Kings, is being performed there by Alan Howard and Logue himself.
Howard had taken a break from learning the text to come to Logue's house in Camberwell. In the garden a great ceramic hand thrusts itself out of the ground, prompting speculation that one of the old gods is on his way up from the underworld; one of those whose partiality for Greek or Trojan hastens or delays the outcome of the ten-year siege.
Kings is the second chunk of Homer's 15,000-line epic to be re-fashioned in English by Logue. ''It's not at all a literal translation, though nearly everything is there. Think of it as a contemporary re-living.''
The tough, sinewy language he has used is a world away from the measured tones of the Penguin Classics version and, by golly, he makes the fear and frenzy sing. His images have a piercing immediacy, yet a vivid metaphor can come flying back, hundreds of lines later, to connect remote parts of the Homer-Logue pattern of rage, awe, greed and sulk. Homer-Logue, a homologue: it's possible. He also puts in grim jokes and puns: ''I am still alive and killing,'' cries Achilles. ''Keep the bloodshed to the maximum,'' Agamemnon urges.
Thirty years ago the BBC commissioned Logue to translate Book 16, the account of the death of Achilles' friend, Patroclus. Versions of three other books followed gradually and all four were published in 1981 as War Music.
''Alan read them on the radio, then the two of us gave a theatre performance,'' says Logue. ''We sat on chairs, reading from the books.'' Howard continues: ''We tried to do it as much as possible as if two people were telling a story that had long been told, recalling how it happened.''
Howard's manner is guarded, where Logue is all enthusiasm and bounce. Kings has been cut from 107 minutes for the BBC to 70 for the theatre, he says. ''But the big difference is that Alan's learning it, so as to do as much as possible 'off the book'. It will be a tour de force. Howard hastily steps in. ''Well, we don't know that. We hope.'' But Logue is insistent. ''A tour de force. Alan has such a remarkable voice, and such command over it.'' Howard now begins to shed the wariness of an actor in a critic's presence. The voice Logue has praised takes on its characteristic pattern of emphasis and expression.
''I was challenged by Liane (Aukin, the director) and Christopher to do this, and felt a lot of what they were saying was right, because you can nail people more than if you are always going back to the book. But Christopher is still going to be doing it with me, sitting at his desk, because I hope we won't lose the idea of the poet and the actor each doing it from his point of view. The idea that the poet, Logue, Homer or whoever, through time immemorial or time to come, is sort of there as the person who documents and produces a text. And then somebody else wants to get up and say it!''
Logue picks up Howard's style of speaking: ''You get a dynamic that way.''
Howard: ''As you already get so wonderfully in the text, there are asides from the narrator, after which you can wind it up again. It's the feeling you have in good storytelling when somebody is telling the story and really likes it, and then they get up and act it around the room. Then they go back and say, 'Oh, and after that we had to take the 2.24 to Uxbridge.' If we can get something like that going, it would, I think, be ... fun.''
Logue beams. His subject is fighting, his characters are frenzied and fearful, but yes, performing it together like this will be fun.
Kings is at the Dream Tent, The Meadows, Middle Meadow Walk, Edinburgh, fom Sunday to August 24.
The Times 15.8.1991.