Helen, Globe Theatre, August 2009

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This Euripides play was given in a new translation by Frank McGuinness, and I liked it, but fear it may sound odd in a few years’ time with expressions like done and dusted. However it worked well here, directed by Deborah Bruce, with designs by Gideon Davy, in a production that took the story lightly. That story, about the real Helen going to Egypt and remaining faithful to her husband Menelaus, while a fake went to Troy as the wife of Priam, became popular in Greece as it let Helen off the hook for the deaths of so many men in a ten-year war. The story was taken up by Hugo von Hofmannsthal as a libretto for Richard Strauss’s opera The Egyptian Helen (Die Ägyptische Helena, which I saw in February in Berlin). The opera is a more elaborate affair, and for this reason doesn’t work well on stage. But this play does work, and at ninety minutes with no interval is far shorter than the opera.

I thought Penny Downie did well as Helen, with Paul McGann giving an excellent portrayal of Menelaus. Rawiri Paratene was Theoclymenes, the Egyptian king who wants to marry Helen, and his all-seeing sister Theonoe was well performed by Diveen Henry. The appearance of Helen’s heavenly brothers Castor and Pollux at the end, as gardeners and odd-job men with angelic wings was pure nonsense, but fun. They were there before the play started, painting the stage, showing that none of this stuff should be taken too seriously, and the whole production was meant to be comic, with Helen expressing an oh-my-god-is-it-really-you attitude, and Theoclymenes hamming it up as a pompous but easily deceived king.

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