Shakespeare’s Globe’s first foray into full-length Greek drama explores one of the lighter examples of the genre which, I hope it is not giving too much away to say, has an unusually cheerful ending.
We do get wailing and gnashing of teeth, but less of the bottomless despair of plays such as the recent adaptations of Oedipus and Phèdre at the National Theatre. Helen, by contrast, is a tale of love rediscovered and victorious in the face of adversity.
Menelaus, travelling home from the Trojan War, is shipwrecked on the shores of Egypt where, it just so happens, his wife Helen has been all the time the two great nations were fighting over her supposed capture. The Gods, you see, are tricksy deities and had created a likeness of the Spartan Queen which had been stolen by the Trojans while her real form was whisked away to safer climes.
Reunited, the royal lovers must conquer their doubts about each other and escape the clutches of Egyptian king Theoclymenes, who would rather like to have Helen to himself.
On Gideon Davey’s stage, with Egyptian relics to one side and a showbiz tinsel curtain to its rear, Pennie Downie’s Helen delights in entertaining the crowd. Part cheeky schoolgirl, part lustful wife, part broken woman, her fiery, flame-haired personality fills the wide-spaces of the Globe.
Paul McGann, as the lost Spartan king, is more understated in his performance. A rugged man who would undoubtedly communicate more with his sword than his words, he is nonetheless a charismatic match for his ball gown wearing wife.
Many of the characters in Frank McGuinness’s adaptation, brought to the stage by director Deborah Bruce, are larger than life and almost pantomimic. Rawiri Paratene’s Egyptian King has the feel of a stomping, sulking villain, Penny Layden’s bold as brass gatekeeper has a touch of the cockney wide boy, and the heavenly double act of James Lailey and Fergal McElherron brings a touch of clowning to proceedings.
It is not often I have found myself thinking of Greek drama as rollicking good fun, yet the inclusion of some showbiz pizzazz and a little audience-delighting showboating has brought humour to the fore of Shakespeare’s Globe’s inaugural effort. That is until you consider, as does Andrew Vincent’s Teucer, that if the Helen Troy kidnapped was a shade of the real Queen, the entire Trojan War and all its death was based on lies, and its massive bloodshed was an effort in absolute futility.