It has been about three weeks since I saw the new Frank McGuinness translation of Helen at Shakespeare’s Globe and because of my laziness I think I am actually writing this on the final day of the show’s run. This is why I am not a professional theatre critic. Well, actually, there are no doubt numerous reasons why I am not a professional theatre critic, but there’s one.
Anyway it’s too late to urge anyone to see it but I still feel the need to bore you with my thoughts. I had no idea what to expect from this – never been much of a Greek tragedy fan and in fact I am so pig-ignorant about it I didn’t know that this play was about as far from a Greek tragedy as it’s far to be (how far is Egypt frm Greece? My geography’s not that great either.)
So Frank McGuinness’s translation of the Euripides classic is more comic than tragic and transposes Helen of the face that launched a thousand ships to Egypt, where she’s been imprisoned whilst her husband fights the Trojan War in the mistaken belief that she’s been kidnapped by Paris and taken to Troy. I vaguely remember this from that Brad Pitt film where Orlando Bloom was a wussy Paris and they had the big wooden horse.
Not so, of course, in this version. Despite a slightly strange set – big rocks and sliver disco-y light things – Frank McGuinness’ translation is so fresh this centuries-old story feels modern as modern can be (I particularly remember a screeching servant of the Egyptian king keeping Helen prisoner, shrieking “foreign bastards” at the husband who has unwittingly arrived, by shipwreck, at his wife’s prison – surely the old Greeks had more lofty insults up their togas.)
I am also so pig-ignorant that I didn’t know Paul McGann he was going to pop up, as Helen’s hubby Menelaus, but he was perfect as the weary soldier and incredulous lover. But, as befits a face that launched a thousand ships, Penny Downie as Helen was the star of the show. Despite having been kidnapped by her husband’s rival purely to piss him off, her Helen was in no way a passive woman whose fate was to be decided by the men around her. From her first appearance onstage, she was all spark and wit and flashing eyes. Snapping at the Greek chorus that hummed and moaned about her, she seemed a woman who’d do more than just start a war – and it was she who finished it, by plotting her escape with Menelaus.
If it was still on I’d say that for anyone like me, who knows nothing about Greek tragedy but fancies a different Globe experience, Helen is an unexpectedly joyous comic experience. But then, I’m lazy, and it’s too late now… so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Sorry.