Helen is the strangest of Greek tragedies - indeed it is not really a tragedy in the usual sense of the word. It's a play with a happy ending where the stage is refreshingly uncluttered by corpses. However, it’s also a piece that balances some sprightly comedy with some serious reflections on the nature of war.
Euripides has an intriguing twist on the familiar story of Helen of Troy. In his take on the tale, Helen has not been abducted by Paris, but a replica of her has been created by the gods, a replica so lifelike that it deceives her husband Menelaus. Helen has passed the ten years of the Trojan War and seven years since in exile under the watchful eye of King Theoclymenus . There she stays until Menelaus arrives, washed up on the Egyptian shores in simple clothing; reunited, they plot their escape from the lascivious king, who has his own designs on Helen.
Frank McGuinness' new translation eschews much of the poetry but offers a fast, snappy take on the story. His use of the vernacular ensures that the play has a resonance to modern-day audiences. And the theme - of the futility of war and the ease with which life can be sacrificed for so little cause, “for the sake of a dream” as an old soldier puts it - certainly strikes us as relevant today.
Helen is a lip-smackingly great part for a woman and Penny Downie relishes every moment of it. Right from her first appearance on a pillar, she takes the audience into her confidence; this is woman strong enough to resist the blandishments of a powerful king and to defy the gods. Paul McGann's more measured Menelaus is inevitably in her shadow but through a beautiful, under-stated performance he displays a real kingly quality. There’s a brief turn from Rawiri Paratene as the thwarted king, richly playing up the comic possibilities.
Despite being lumbered with a weird set from Gideon Davey, dominated by what appears to be pile of coal, director Deborah Bruce makes the most of the space and proves that the Globe is a stage that works perfectly for Greek drama; let’s hope we see more.
It's certainly good to see the Globe tackling non-Shakespearean classics. There was a healthy attendance for such a little-known play, and it was warmly appreciated. Downie’s performance dominates the production but it's the questions about the wisdom of fighting wars for dubious causes that really hit home.