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Theatre review: Helen 
20th-Aug-2009 10:23 pm
A couple of notable things for me about tonight's theatre trip: After resisting it for 12 years I finally went to see something at Shakespeare's Globe (funnily enough after booking this I figured I might as well book some other shows so I have another two lined up.) And, after Volpone, Equus and Dealer's Choice, I've finally seen professional productions of all the plays I directed scenes from in my final year directing course in my Drama degree. Euripides' Helen was my final piece, and what attracted me to it at the time is also the same thing that's made it so hard to catch a professional production: It stands alone among surviving Ancient Greek theatre in terms of tone, in that it's a tragicomedy, or more accurately a romantic adventure story. I was interested that it contradicted the usual image of what we expect from Greek plays, namely either very bleak, harsh tragedies, or bawdy Aristophanes comedies. But this difficulty in categorising it has meant it's become a bit of an obscure footnote, so it's exciting that the Globe has chosen this of all plays for its first-ever venture into the genre.

The text I used was fairly dry but Frank McGuinness' version is witty and full of deliberately anachronistic expressions. The Globe's season this year is titled "Young Hearts" but this play is most definitely about middle-aged hearts, lovers who've missed their youth together and are finally reunited. Euripides used an obscure version of the Helen of Troy myth that suggested Helen never went to Troy, never betrayed her husband. Instead a lifelike "shadow" went with Paris, fooling everyone, while the goddess Hera spirited the real Helen away to hide in Egypt. 17 years later, Helen is still loyal to Menelaus, despite the local king, Theoclymenes', constant attempts to woo her. A shipwreck finally brings Menelaus to the Egyptian shore.

Penny Downie as Helen really uses the Globe's large-but-intimate nature to become conspiratiorial with the audience right from the start, drawing them in like an extension of the chorus of slave women (all but one of whom are played by men, including Philip Cumbus, who I really liked as Edward II last year.) This is absolutely Downie's show but she's well-matched by Paul McGann¹ as Menelaus, and they have some touching reunion scenes as well as some fun comic business when despite the years since last seeing each other they slot right back into a coupley shorthand. Deborah Bruce's production is assured and fun, albeit with a couple of odd touches (like Castor and Pollux appearing as a pair of painter-decorators.) But the more serious aspects aren't left behind, notably the realisation that Helen has no intention of helping the chorus of slaves to escape with her. And with the idea of Helen having been an innocent, replaced by a shadow, comes the horrific realisation that the Trojan War and all those deaths were for nothing - this topicality may be ultimately why the play was dusted off by the Globe. I went with vanessaw who got a bit distracted around the halfway point but felt it picked up again afterwards; she mentioned the quite overblown acting style, which I felt suited the play and the environment - whether all Globe productions have this less subtle touch I won't know until I've seen more, but it definitely for me felt in keeping with the space, which in Shakespeare's time would have come complete with heckles from the groundlings.

As this was my first visit there a word about the Globe; I guess I'll see how I feel when I've been there in the rain but in fairly good weather I really liked the space. I was game to get groundling tickets but Vanessa wasn't keen on standing for 90 minutes so we got Lower Gallery seats. It's ironic that, as in Shakespeare's day, the Globe supplements its income by hiring out cushions to sit on - ironic because we went without and the bare wooden benches were actually more comfortable than most fringe theatres, not to mention a great many West End ones as well.

Helen by Euripides in a version by Frank McGuinness is booking until the 23rd of August at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

¹this makes him the first even-numbered Doctor I've seen on stage - I was hoping to get all the surviving odd-numbered ones first but haven't managed Peter Davison yet. McGann's programme bio doesn't even mention Doctor Who which is a shame really; I know for a long time his single televised story was shorthand for the series at its worst, but in his more recent audio work the Eighth Doctor has become more popular so it's not really anything to be ashamed of any more, is it?
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