Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Is this the face ...?"

I've just caught up with last Thursday's Twenty Minutes from BBC Radio 3. In the performance break of a concert focussing on 'Shostakovich and His Heroes', Bettany Hughes, everybody's first choice these days for Greek history, gets to talk some more on Helen of Troy. Fortunately she is not looking at the evidence for the 'historical' Helen, as she has in her book and recent Channel 4 programme (my thoughts on the programme can be found here), but pursuing what to my mind is the more profitable seam of Helen-as-icon, in this case in the artistic tradition of Britain.

The most interesting bit was David Lan talking about how he had dealt with the problems of bringing Helen on stage in a production of Dr Faustus. As Lan notes, Helen represents an ideal, the most beautiful woman in the world. Represented solely by the written word, the reader can construct her appearance according to their own taste in female beauty. But once you put an actress on stage, you have something concrete and real, that may not accord with the audience's expectations. For me, this is most obvious in Michael Cacoyannis' otherwise excellent The Trojan Women, where Irene Pappas' Helen matches far less well with my idea of what a beautiful woman should look like than Vanessa Redgrave's radiant Andromache.

One interesting way of solving this is actually to be found in a Doctor Who story, 'The Myth Makers', where Helen is spoken of, but never actually appears. Lan's solution in Dr Faustus is ingenious. Instead of bringing Helen on stage, he had Faustus catch sight of his own reflection.

You can still catch the programme for the next twenty-four hours on

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