Brighton Fringe 2016
In the opening stage of ‘Helen’, Tamsin Shasha, playing the eponymous central character, was wearing what looked like a surgical mask. She was lying on a huge bed in white silk pyjamas, surrounded on all four sides by a four-poster structure draped with filmy white gauze hangings. Helen’s head was almost completely hidden. All we could see were a few tufts of her hair sticking out, and three round holes framing – and drawing all our attention to – her mouth and her enormous eyes.
‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’. Christopher Marlowe’s Faust knew that she was the most beautiful woman in history – the Queen of Sparta, who’d left her husband to run away with the Trojan Prince Paris. The betrayal which led to the Trojan War, ten years of bloody slaughter as the Greeks destroyed Troy to get Helen back. And now – was Helen’s face burned, or scarred in some way?
Helen was badly scarred – but not on her face or body. When she removed it, the mask turned out to be some kind of cosmetic aid helping to keep her skin fresh. Because this is an older Helen – it’s been twenty or thirty years since she returned from Troy with Menelaus after the war and she’s middle-aged now. Helen’s scars were all inside her mind.
Actors of Dionysus have updated the Helen story to a contemporary setting – it could be today’s Middle East. Helen’s husband is the President, and his country is in the throes of a revolution. He’s away somewhere, maybe dead by now, and the rebels have taken control of the TV station. Helen’s in her bedroom in the Presidential Palace, it seems – alone apart from a solitary male aide – and she’s drug fuddled and in complete denial.
All the action takes place in and around the four-poster bed, and there’s obviously a large television set somewhere in the room. When they clicked the remote, clever lighting gave flickering illumination on the two actors, and we heard indistinct TV sound of someone making a speech, and later of people chanting slogans in the streets. It’s like the Arab Spring protests in Egypt or Algeria.
Or in today’s Syria. At the close of the performance, Actors of Dionysus made a collection for Syria Relief, and I was struck that if that revolt finally brings down Bashar al-Assad, it might well be his wife Asma hiding in the besieged palace …
Helen is raging at the TV – “They’re animals, barbarians … Bomb them into submission. Take back the suburbs!”. But she’s also fretting about a party that will have to be cancelled, while at the same time planning great victory parades. She’s in absolute panic – she orders her aide to find the list of party guests on his laptop, and then selects a few diplomats and politicians to contact, begging them for asylum. But even here, her email text as she dictates it is sensual and coquettish. Helen is used to getting her own way, and she’s offering sex in exchange for sanctuary.
Helen’s aide never speaks – his tongue has been cut out – and we’re not given his name. Tyler Fayose who acts him is tall and powerfully built, wearing a black tee-shirt and military fatigue pants. He’s a soldier – he salutes at the TV when somebody (the President?) is speaking. He’s her secretary, hence the laptop – but he’s also some kind of medic, so he restrains Helen when she thrashes around in uncontrollable rage and terror, and injects her with sedatives to calm her. There’s a strong undercurrent of sexuality between them – at several points she attempts to seduce him – but it’s never clear whether he is in fact her jailer, too.
The physicality of this production was beautiful. The light as very white and cruelly bright as Helen surveyed her ageing body in a mirror, but then it softened to warmer tones as she returned to the bed to recount her conception. Helen’s mother Leda was seduced by the god Zeus, who disguised himself as a swan to mate with her. As Helen sat on her pillow speaking to us, her aide stood close behind her, back to back, hidden except for his arms, which he reached back to wrap around her sensuously. Then he raised them above her like the great wings of the swan God – a powerful and unforgettable image.
This episode reminded us of Helen’s mythical status – a semi-god, irresistibly beautiful. But she’s been blamed throughout history, from Homer onwards, for her infidelity as the cause of immense suffering; her hands – “drenched in the blood of women and children”. Tamsin Shasha and her co-writer Jonathan Young put a different spin on the Trojan War, as today’s Helen screams at the TV that – “it’s ridiculous to open up old wounds from twenty, thirty years ago”, and that all the charges against her were unproven. She’s innocent – “The war was about resources: oil and minerals“. Oil and minerals provide a direct parallel to the Iraq War, where fictitious ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ were used as an excuse for going to war for control of oil resources.
That’s exactly what this reviewer has long thought about the Trojan War. If you consider the location of Troy – at the very entrance to the Dardanelles, able to control and tax all the trade from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean – it seems obvious that the city posed an economic threat which needed to be eliminated. A war about resources, in fact. And what better excuse for starting a war than to recover the ‘abducted’ wife of a Greek King? What if the seduction of Helen was a complete fabrication, used to drum up support for the conflict?
Helen of Troy as a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’.
So there are politics and mythology in this piece, but my overriding impression is of achingly sensual movement and light. Tamsin Shasha is an aerialist as well as an accomplished actor, and later in the play she used the hanging gauzes as silks, climbing up and wrapping them round her waist to support herself as she swung from the poles of the four-poster structure. For an extended sequence she hung there, body horizontal and feet against an upright, as the man pulled her gently round through several revolutions. When he released her, the silks unwinding round the post gave her the impetus to rotate completely unassisted – as though she was flying. It was like watching a ballet in slow motion – astonishing and unforgettable.
So many ravishing moments. At one point the bluish light on the gauze drapes turned oh-so-gradually to red – so sadly, so subtly. In fact ‘subtle’ is the only possible word for Ric Mountjoy’s lighting – it changed in colour and intensity throughout the production, matching each plot development perfectly, and bringing out all the shimmering delicacy of Dora Schweitzer’s set.
I won’t tell you how it ends – you’ll have to go and see for yourselves. This is a highly, highly recommended production.