Sunday, September 09, 2007

Helen of Troy

Euripides, Helen of Troy
The Scoop at More London
Performance seen: September 7th 2007

The term 'Greek tragedy' covers a wide range of different tonalities. At one extreme is a passionate horror like The Bacchae (currently running at the Lyric Hammersmith). At the other is Helen, which is often described as a light comedy. There's a lot of grounds for such a description. Both Helen and Menelaus can be portrayed as comic characters, flighty and vain, and foolish and rather stupid, respectively. And the play has a 'happy ending', with the reunited lovers escaping, Helen's disappointed suitor Theoclymenus resigned to his fate, and only the nameless Egyptians slaughtered by Menelaus and his Greeks coming off badly. It is easy to play Helen as almost a Noël Coward comedy of manners.

Steam Industry Free Theatre's approach in this production, directed by Phil Wilmott, is slightly different. They don't neglect comedy, by any means. Menelaus' shipmate, here named Atticus and demoted to the rank of slave [Edit 18/08/09: I let myself down here with a lack of familarity with the play - Meneleus' shipmate is clearly marked out as a slave in Euripides' original text.], is outrageously camp in the portrayal by Nick Smithers, whilst Paul Critolph's Theoclymenus is full-on pantomime villain. But Wilmott's adaptation seeks to find the seriousness in the play. Kerry Skinner's Helen is a woman wronged by malicious gossip, whilst Stewart Alexander's Menelaus, if sometimes confused, carries enough dignity to suggest why his wife should actively want him back.

This is quite a lean Helen as well. The action is got through in about seventy-five minutes. This is largely achieved by cutting most of the choral odes (which in any case don't directly address the action in the way most Greek choruses do). But Helen's explanation of her plan to Menelaus is also cut, so both she and her husband are presented as making up their deception of Theoclymenus as they go along. This is both funnier, and makes Helen and Menelaus more admirable. (On the other hand, Atticus' role appears to have been slightly expanded.)

Other changes involve the replacement of Helen's opening monologue with a dialogue conveying the same information to the audience, between her and the god Hermes, as he abducts her from Sparta. Hermes also returns in place of the Dioscuri at the end. Atticus and Teucer deliver the messenger's speech between them (and to the audience, not to Theoclymenus), and minor roles such as the door keeper are subsumed in the the Chorus.

The stage set has the look of a beach on the Indian Ocean. This is rather dictated by the need for it to also serve for an earlier performance of The Jungle Book on the same day. But the costumes are made to fit, with the Chorus clad in long skirts and midriff-baring tops, with the male members clad in baggy multicoloured shirts and shorts. (The beach effect was emphasized when I saw the play by a co-operative stiff breeze down the Thames.)

Steam Industry have often used the Scoop, the small open theatrical space (inaccurately described as an amphitheatre) in in front of City Hall on the south bank of the Thames, to stage Greek drama (Oedipus, Agamemnon and Children of Hercules). But this is the first time I had seen it. Though the space has nothing like the scale of a true Greek theatre, the tiers of stone backless seating and the open-air environment conveys some of the same effect, though Euripides never had the benefit of radio mikes.

I shall watch out for further productions in this venue.

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