Helen – August 2009


By Euripides, translated by Frank McGuinness

Directed by Deborah Bruce

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Friday 21st August 2009

This was a jolly romp, or as a friend of ours put it “a lot of nonsense, but very enjoyable”. Frank McGuiness has done another excellent version of a Greek play, using modern idiom superbly well when needed, and bringing out the comedy in this rather fantastical piece by Euripides.

The premise is that Helen was not stolen away to Troy but secretly whisked away to Egypt by a vengeful Hera, who substituted a fake Helen, conjured from vapours, to satisfy Paris. (Paris, you will remember, pleased Aphrodite enormously when he picked her as the most beautiful goddess in Olympus, but Hera and Athena weren’t so happy. Olympus may have talent, but it also has spite, jealousy and a nasty taste for revenge.)

Helen is a bit fed up, firstly from waiting for Menelaus to come and get her, then with hearing how she’s reviled by everyone for causing the Trojan War, lots of deaths, etc., and now having to fend off the unwelcome attentions of the new king Theoclymenes who’s looking after her. She was left with his father originally, but he died and his son quite fancies having a Greek queen. The Trojan war was over seven years ago, there’s been no definite word of Menelaus (but lots of rumours that he’s dead) and Theoclymenes sees no reason not to marry Helen, even against her wishes, the brute!

A Greek sailor turns up, who tells Helen her husband’s probably dead, and she’s just getting down to some serious breast beating and wailing when her ‘women’ (several of them played by men) acting as a mini-chorus, advise her to check with the king’s sister first. This sister, Theonoe, is a prophet and knows everything that goes on. If she says Menelaus is alive, then he’s alive. Encouraged by this advice, and with a warning from the chorus to get a straight answer from Theonoe (you know what these oracles can be like) Helen heads off.

Next thing you know, Menelaus is staggering through the audience before collapsing in a heap on the stage. Revived by a singing person (after Streetcar yesterday, another white dinner jacket – is this a trend?) he tells us how difficult it’s been to get home from Troy. He no sooner gets within sight of Sparta than he’s blown to yet another corner of the Med. This time, his ship’s been destroyed and he’s left ‘Helen’ hidden away in a cave, with his men guarding her, while he goes in search of food for them all. His first encounter is with a mouthy servant, straight out of Molière, who tells him to get while the getting’s good. The king doesn’t like Greeks, apart from that Helen woman he wants to marry. This makes Menelaus prick up his ears, and when Helen returns, joyful at Theonoe’s news that Menelaus is alive, they enter into a strange reunion dance, neither one quite able to believe the other’s identity at first. When one of Menelaus’s men comes from the cave to tell him that ‘Helen’ has vanished, Menelaus gets over his doubts and soon they’re plotting how to escape from Egypt.

The first step is to persuade Theonoe not to tell the king her brother that Menelaus has arrived, as he would simply have him bumped off. It’s tricky, as Theonoe is torn between helping Helen’s legitimate husband and loyalty to her brother. Finally, an appeal to consider what her dead father would have done tips the scales; she knows he would have restored Helen to Menelaus, and agrees to keep the information from her brother.

That done, they need to find a ship that will take them all back to Sparta. Menelaus may have been one of the leaders who defeated mighty Troy but he hasn’t much of a clue when it comes to devious manipulation. For that we need Helen’s quick wits. She decides to tell the king that Menelaus has drowned, and before she can remarry she must carry out a symbolic burial at sea to appease the gods or whatnot. Menelaus himself will pretend to be a Greek sailor who saw his death and has brought the news to her. Once aboard the ship, Menelaus and his men can get rid of the Egyptian sailors and sail for home. It’s a good plan, but will the king fall for it?

Of course he will. He doesn’t have a clue about Greek rituals and he’s keen to get on with his own nuptials, so Helen and Menelaus are given carte blanche to kit the ship out with whatever they need for the ceremony.  There’s a nasty moment when the king suggests he should accompany her, but he’s quickly dissuaded, and the couple make their escape safely.

Now all that remains is to hear the news of their escape brought back to the king, followed by a final intervention by Castor and Pollux, and before you know it the band are playing a jazzy little number for the cast to jive to at the end.

It was good fun, and although we had the usual problem at the Globe of not being able to hear all of it, I caught enough to keep me happy. I noticed that both Penny Downie and Paul McGann were much clearer than the others, especially the first sailor who arrived to speak to Helen; he had an accent and a roaring delivery that made it very hard to hear his lines, though he was better when he turned the volume down.

The set had a large mound on the near side of the stage with a hidey-hole part way down it at the front. There was a lot of scaffolding everywhere, which allowed characters to climb up the far pillar, and some huge letters, presumably Greek ones, with equivalent cut-outs in the back wall. The letter nearest us was lifted up towards the end. Otherwise the stage was the usual size, and personally I think that’s a better size for this performance space.

The preamble to the play had two builders wandering round the set making desultory efforts to work. One of them even sat down and had his lunch, as well as reading the paper. There was some sparring between them because a tool which one dropped was moved by the other, leading to retaliation. These two turned up as Castor and Pollux at the end, with the addition of cute wings which was good fun, though I have no idea what the connection with the initial builders bit was.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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