Euripides' Helen

Jericho Arts Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia
June 6-29, 1997

Directed by C.W. Marshall
Produced by Andree Karas
Translated by Don Taylor

Reviewed by Laurel Bowman
University of Victoria

The set for this production of the Helen emphasized the play's Egyptian location. A palace wall decorated with hieroglyphs and a statue of Thoth was broken by a high double central door, whose lintel was carved with the name 'PROTEUS'. To the right stood a lawn chair and table next to a large pyramid, the tomb of Proteus. Sand dunes extended towards the left and right wings. In this alien context the Greek characters - Helen, Menelaus and the chorus - were cast as 1930's British expatriates, with clothing and accents strongly reminiscent of Masterpiece Theatre productions of Agatha Christie.

Helen first appeared as the lights went up, seated by the pyramid in the lawnchair beside a drinks table complete with decanter, ice bucket, and soda siphon, and reading a newspaper headlined 'Palace Denies Helen's Affairs'. Her two costumes were both high-society 30's style. She initially wore a close-fitting white dress with flaring chiffon skirt, and entirely white accessories - gloves, sheer hose, pearls, broad-brimmed hat and pumps. When she reappeared in mourning for the alleged death of Menelaus, her costume was identical, but all in black, with an added veil. The effect was stunningly over-the-top, at once self-consciously vain and appropriate to the supernaturally beautiful Helen, and underlined both the accuracy and the self-absorption of Helen's frequent references in the play to her own beauty. Menelaus' second costume was similarly 1930's British - a summer British Expeditionary Force uniform with brogues, olive socks,khaki knee-length shorts, shoulder-boarded and bemedalled khaki shirt, and British officer's cap. Teucer appeared costumed as a British soldier. The chorus wore the uniforms of the British domestic servants of the period, black with white aprons and caps, and the chorus-leader, a comfortable, middle-aged woman who brought the word 'nanny' instantly to mind, sat to one side mending clothing during breaks in the action, and spoke to Helen with the familiarity of an old family retainer. Theonoe and Theoclymenus, in contrast to the Greek characters, wore bright oriental tunic-length brocade silk tunics and jackets in fuchsia and gold.

The net effect of the careful attention to costuming was to underline the gulf between Greek and Egyptian characters. By setting the play in the 1930's, and costuming the Greeks as members of an expatriate British colony, the production imported the assumptions which British expatriates of this period held in common with the fifth century Athenians - that however far they might stray from home, they were still British (Greek), and as such not only different from but better than the barbarians who surrounded and threatened them on all sides. The staging thus neatly translated an important part of the Athenian mind-set into terms familiar to the Canadian twentieth-century audience. The class-structure of 1930's British culture also handily mirrored and translated the distinction between the aristocratic Helen and Menelaus, and the supporting chorus of domestic slaves, a distinction the play frequently draws attention to, and nowhere more clearly than in Castor's last lines, 'We gods, you know, are always biased in favour of the upper classes. The nastiest sufferings are always reserved for the masses.' (All translations are Taylor's.)

The speeches of the chorus were for the most part divided among the chorus members, each one beginning the line where the last had broken off. Where possible the lines were treated as conversations between pairs of chorus members. Though the division of lines between chorus members was not uniformly easy to follow, this generally worked well. The parodos was particularly effective; here the chorus' comments on Helen's plight were delivered as an internal conversation while they folded laundry.

Performances were very good. Harkin gave Helen charm, intelligence, and emotional depth; Harris portrayed Menelaus as a pompous, bigoted blowhard whose braggadocio was a clumsy veil for his well-founded fear that events were moving too fast for his slow wits. Rollett made good use of changes in acting style and height differences in her costumes to distinguish between her five characters - Teucer in British uniform, standing upright; the doorkeeper wrapped entirely in shawls, with a slight stoop; the Greek sailor in 'old man' makeup and a serious stoop, taking a foot or so off her height; Theonoe upright, wearing a high crown; and Theoclymenus on two foot high stilts covered by long trousers.

My only reservation about this production was its interpretation of the play as a proto-New Comedy. The Helen is a challenge to produce because it crosses the genre-boundaries, as we understand them, of Greek theatre. The easiest solution is to pick a genre and interpret the entire play to fit; but such an approach will inevitably misrepresent some part of the play. The play certainly has comic elements (I am inclined to think of the character of Menelaus as one of them) which will be missed if it is produced as a straight 'tragedy'. On the other hand, while some attempt was made to play the dramatic moments 'straight' - the messenger speech reporting the escape of Helen and Menelaus was a particularly well-done example - there are moments of high drama and genuine emotion in the play which were missed or actively undercut by the comic treatment.

Taylor's lively translation of the play lent itself to the comic approach. While free, it is generally not inaccurate, but at times it goes overboard. To translate Helen's line hednosomai te thugater', hen oudeis gamei (933)as 'to arrange a marriage for my daughter, whom at the moment no one will touch with a barge pole' is stretching a bit, but is acceptably within the implications of the Greek. However, when Menelaus asks who will convey the false news of Menelaus' death to Theoclymenus, to have Helen answer 'You, you dimwit', where the Greek has only sou (1077), is to import to the text something it did not remotely imply.

The production similarly was lively and free, but occasionally went overboard. The limits of the comic potential of the scenes were frequently stretched, but acceptably so. Menelaus for example was played as a comic buffoon, which is reasonable, if pushing things slightly, since it is arguably implied by the text. At times however the production went over the line, and added comic effects which the text did not support, and which in fact undercut the emotional weight of the lines. During the ecstatic duet between Menelaus and Helen on their reunion, for example, the attention of the audience was distracted by a flirtatious byplay between the sailor and the chorus leader. The chorus leader secretively poured the highly appreciative old salt a drink from Helen's table, exaggeratedly motioning that he should keep quiet about it. The result of such comic interplay was that the audience, primed by such scenes to think of the entire play as a comedy, snickered at Theonoe's grand entrance, when she ordered her slaves to purify the path before her in case any men had walked on it.

These lines are difficult to deliver in front of any twentieth-century audience. However, a less insistently comic production of the previous scenes would have allowed the audience to interpret this scene as an expression of an authentic, albeit strange, religious ritual. Instead, the audience' automatic response was amusement. The closing scene, in which Castor is played as a sulky schoolboy (he enters on a swing, in a 1930's school uniform) similarly injected humour into a scene which had no comic implications in the text.

Since we have no stage directions to Euripides' plays, however, my objections, like the production, must rely to some extent on conjecture. The Helen is hard to produce precisely because it is not entirely tragedy,comedy, or any other genre, and the experiment of treating it as a comedy was certainly worth making. The performance was polished, entertaining, and in large part persuasive, and though I do not think it was how Euripides produced the play, he might well have enjoyed it.

Helen/Castor - Allana Harkin
Menelaus/Messenger - John Harris
Teucer/Greek sailor/doorkeeper/Theonoe/Theoclymenus - Nicola Rollett
Chorus of Greek captives - Joan Bryans, Siobhan McCarthy, Neal K. Murphy, Joan Betty Stuchner
Slaves of Theoclymenus - Ken Shields, Bob Haxton

Laurel Bowman
University of Victoria