Review Round-Ups

Review Round-up: Downie’s Helen no Tragedy

The Globe premiered its first full-scale Greek drama this week (5 August 2009, previews from 2 August), with Frank McGuinness‘ new version of Euripides’ lesser-known and rarely performed Helen.

Written in 412BC, Helen radically reimagines the story of Helen of Troy. In Euripides’ version, a phantom triggered the Trojan war, while the real Helen has spent the subsequent years in exile in Egypt under the watchful eye of King Theoclymenus. When her husband Menelaus is shipwrecked off the Egyptian coast, the couple are finally reunited and plot their escape.

Deborah Bruce directs a cast led by Penny Downie as Helen, Paul McGann as Menelaus and Rawiri Paratene as Theoclymenes.

There was little critical consensus over Helen – particularly regarding the play’s genre – but on one issue they were united: all were glad to see Greek drama making its long-awaited bow at the Globe. Most made mention of the particularly “free” nature of McGuinness’ translation, which for some increased the play’s resonance but for others set the wrong tone with its “colloquial chirpiness”. Of the performances, overnight critics were enraptured by Penny Downie‘s “fiery” and “dominating”  Helen, while Paul McGann was praised for his “engaging directness” as Menelaus. And our award for most oft-mentioned chorus member in a review round-up definitely goes to the mysterious “countertenor in a white tuxedo”.

  • Maxwell Cooter on (four stars) – “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 … 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 … Downie’s performance dominates the production but it’s the questions about the wisdom of fighting wars for dubious causes that really hit home.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “Scholars have long argued about what kind of play Helen actually is: a comedy, a tragedy, a romance? Let’s just say it’s a genre-busting drama of great panache, often reminiscent of such late Shakespearean plays as The Winter’s Tale and Pericles … Some may find McGuinness’ translation too free. A gatekeeper tells Menelaus ‘No dogs, No Greeks – f*** off, foreign bastard’, but there are also passages of more lofty blank verse, and the modernity and irreverent wit suits the play. Deborah Bruce’s production, set in an Egyptian graveyard, deftly combines ancient and modern, the serious and the frivolous, and the evening is powered by a terrific performance from Penny Downie … In this continuously alert and stylish staging, there’s a countertenor in a white tuxedo among the bedraggled chorus of peasant slaves, and an outstanding performance from Paul McGann. There’s also a delicious comic turn from Rawiri Paratene as the plump, lustful and hilariously stupid Egyptian king … This rare revival of an undervalued classic proves the jewel in the Globe’s crown this season.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “While parts of Frank McGuinness’ new version are handsomely lyrical, its poetic archaisms sit oddly alongside … There are shonky lines to boot: ‘The gods are changeable as a child’s arse’ may get a laugh but it means nothing. The idea is to enable Euripides to speak to a modern audience: the result is bumpy. Still, the actors have fun with it. As Helen, Penny Downie moves nicely from conspiratorial allure to flailing eroticism, and Paul McGann’s Menelaus has an engaging directness. The chorus proves endearingly Pythonesque, while a shoeless countertenor in a tux lends a touch of finesse. Deborah Bruce’s direction has verve but there are too many ideas competing for space. Gideon Davey’s set – a puzzling mix of graveyard, dungheap and tinseled cabaret – is typical of a production that affords real pleasure yet seems confused about its main intent.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “Good to find Greek drama making its debut at the Globe, and it’s especially pleasing to see this comedy by Euripides getting a rare public showing. But this is comedy with a serious point and a political purpose that get submerged under the jokiness of Deborah Bruce‘s production and the colloquial chirpiness of Frank McGuinness’ new version … It’s a playful, witty affair and there are moments when the production captures the appropriate lightness … But all too often the production strives for laughter instead of letting it emerge naturally: Helen’s siblings, Castor and Pollux, are typically turned into comic workmen and then joke-angels with squeaking shoes and fancy feathers. We also lose sight of the play’s ultimate seriousness … The cast admittedly work with a will … But Gideon Davey’s design is more messy than pleasing to the eye and the production is full of eccentricities such as a choric counter-tenor strolling through the action in white tuxedo.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “It’s an odd, suggestive play that begins by introducing us to the real Helen, who has been dumped by Hera in Egypt, where she’s spent 17 years being sexually harassed by the local Pharaoh and yearning for her husband, Menelaus … Penny Downie, a fine, fiery Helen with the hair of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, moves from suicidal self-hatred to joy when she’s suddenly confronted with Paul McGann’s bold, tough Menelaus … The fun sometimes seems forced. Nor could I see why the chorus of slaves, who look like Balkan ragamuffins, was led by a counter-tenor in a white tuxedo; yet the point still comes across. Troy was needlessly destroyed. Greeks were needlessly killed. As the chorus says, damnation to all warmongers.”