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A CurtainUp London Review
The action is set seven years after the fall of Troy, as the victorious Greeks are denied enjoyment of their triumph and struggle to reach home, continually shipwrecked and blown off course. However, unbeknownst to them, they fought and suffered for nothing other than a divinely-created phantom doppelganger. The real Helen (Penny Downie) was abducted by Hermes and placed in Egypt, she never went to Troy with Paris and her fidelity to her husband Menelaus (Paul McGann) was unswervingly unimpeachable. However, when the play opens, the Egyptian king Theoclymenes (Rawiri Paratene) threatens to change this, intending to force Helen into marriage with himself. Only the timely arrival of the shipwrecked Menelaus can reunite the longsuffering married couple.
Penny Downie's Helen, the woman whose famed beauty "lacerates" her, is feisty and determined, and nicely demonstrates that this character's heroic quality is also her great affliction. Paul McGann's Menelaus is sympathetic as the crushed hero who, having lost everything for nothing, now has a glimmer of hope in the chance to regain his true wife. However, these two are outshone by the excellent Rawiri Paratene as the powerful villain Theoclymenes.
The Globe's stage is transformed into a combination of the fantastical nature of the myth and the alien shore of Egypt. Pink-edged, oversized Greek letters spell out the word Helen on a backdrop of white with glittery silver curtains, and a mound of black seaweed covers one half of the stage. From this swamp of seaweed, a Mummy-style tomb and statue of Anubis peep out, in keeping with Theoclymenes' costume: full Pharoah-style regalia, kohl and headgear. Designer Gideon Davey is making the point that this is the meeting of two ancient cultures.
The Dioscuri (Helen's heavenly twin brothers) sport white suits with fully feathered angel wings and, in a clever twist, they are also stage hands in the production's first scene. And so the dei ex machina are engineers of theatre and of the world recreated there.
Frank McGuinness' new version of the play is accessible and lively. Having excised some of the more in-depth and obscure aetiological passages, he blends in low register colloquialisms. Although some phrases may appear incongruous to those expecting a stately Attic drama, others are remarkably vivid and earthy. So, for example, the gods are called "as changeable as a child's arse" but Helen, blaming herself for her mother's death, states "I am my mother's murder".
Most significantly of all, however, McGuinness' version understands Euripides' cynical, painfully humorous and polemical stance as the gods' machinations make a mockery of humanity. Although an oddity of a play, it was a pleasure to see it in the Globe's space, which is arguably one of the best contemporary auditoriums suited to Greek drama with its visible audience, open air space, and more declamatory style of acting required. All in all, this is a rare revival of a story portraying love preciously regained in the context of senseless war and suffering.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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