Helen, performed by Tamsin Shasha and Tyler Fayose, directed by Jonathan Young, Actors of Dionysus, Sweet St Andrews, Brighton Fringe, Brighton, Monday 16th May, 6pm.
Helen of Troy is more concept than woman, born of the union between Leda and a swan (the swan being Zeus of course), Christopher Marlowe's disembodied 'face that launched a thousand ships.' She is kidnapped and raped by, or goes willingly with, or seduces, Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy, while married to Menelaus, King of Laconia. Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, set off to Troy to get her back, but not before Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for a fair breeze. They are away at the war for 10 years. They eventually defeat Troy by hiding inside a giant wooden horse.
Why am I wasting space saying all this? Even if you haven't read Homer or Euripides or Herodotus or Ovid, et al you will know Helen of Troy as the most beautiful woman that ever lived; or else as an excuse for a war about access to trading routes.
One detail to know is that the war with the Greeks lasts 10 years. She is inside Troy with her lover, Paris, while her husband and his army is outside, for 10 years. This is, I guess, roughly where this production begins, at the point where Troy falls to the Greeks.
Paris, we assume, is elsewhere defending the city. Helen is in her bedroom, with a servant, a eunuch, who has had his tongue removed so cannot speak. Helen is a little stressed by the situation. She's planning a grand reception, which has to be re-configured as a funeral when her husband (Paris?) is killed in some kind of violent event which they watch on the television. The action is set in something like the present day.
Things go from bad to worse. It's every woman and man for themselves.
The play oscillates between naturalistic delivery and stylised movement, incorporating the structure over the bed, on which the actors can climb and swing. Much is mysterious, and only seems to be glancingly related to the last days of Troy. At one point the servant climbs to the top of the bed structure and cries out to be rescued, perhaps by helicopter, in an apparent reference to the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975.
Much about this situation is very promising. The characters are in extremis, as in any Greek tragedy; Helen wears a mask at the beginning, a kind of parody of her famous beauty; her servant seems trapped, unable to leave, unable to help, dressed as a soldier yet functioning as a maid servant. There is paradox, mystery, fear. And linking the myth of Helen to modern wars, especially with the situation on Syria, is a terrific idea.
There is also confusion. Helen is more victim of her situation than someone in total control of the known world. She needs artificial help with her fear, her face, her imprisonment, and is at the mercy of her eunuch, sometime drug pusher. So much is set up, so much is not explored or developed.
No writer is credited, and perhaps it shows. The naturalism just doesn't work. Going back to Helen as a concept, we simply can't resolve the conflicting idea of Helen as myth with Helen as drug addict as presented here. The situation call for a heightened treatment, something which speaks to the stylisation of the movement sections of the play, something like Greek tragedy.
What Helen needs desperately, rather than drugs, is more content. This is a great beginning. I look forward to seeing where this play goes in the future.
I really like what this company does. They have a take on the classics which is brave and surprising. They are needed.