Browse reviews

Brighton Fringe 2024

Low Down

Helen of Troy?

Helen of Sparta?   

Helen, the daughter of Zeus after he raped her mother Leda?

Helen, whose seduction by Paris led to the Trojan War?

Helen, who fell uncontrollably in love with Paris and left her husband for him?

Helen, who might have actually been set up as a ‘honey-trap’ to seduce Paris herself, to give an excuse for the War?

Helen, who spent the War in Troy as the daughter-in-law of King Priam?

Helen, who possibly spent the War in Egypt, while the gods sent a phantom to Troy in her place?


So many Helens.  So many possible truths behind Homer’s poem.   

But as the film director John Ford once said – 

“When the truth becomes the legend – print the legend.”


And that’s just what Catie Ridewood’s done – she’s given us the legend.



She’s given us the whole Homeric Helen story, beginning with Helen and her twin sister Clytemnestra inside the egg laid by their mother Leda – and ending with Helen rising towards the sky, lit in gold and yellow, her veins full not of blood but of ichor, the ethereal fluid of the Gods.   Because, after all, she was the daughter of Zeus.

As the production’s writer, Ridewood’s added some bits to Homer, as well as shamelessly raiding other sources, and we get Helen’s life story in flashes.  It’s a three-woman show, and as well as Ridewood we had Lorraine Yu and Sophia Mastrosavaki employing superb talents for voice and movement in their playing of a wide variety of roles – male and female.   I’d seen Lorraine Yu the week before in a production of ‘The Tower’, and her fluid dance movements and protean vocal range were much in evidence here.

At the start, Mastrosavaki and Yu are standing together in the centre of the stage, clad in long red dresses and holding great bunches of white feathers.  As they let them fall to the floor, feather by feather, they call on Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy, to recount the story of Helen – “Daughter of Zeus, Destroyer of cities, Slayer of men”.  This recalled the opening lines of The Illiad – “Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Achilles; murderous, doomed, that cost the Acheans countless losses …”

“Begin, Goddess, at whatever point you want.” the women asked the Muse … and Melpomene’s tale started after the sack of Troy, with the women waiting to be taken away as slaves.  This bit’s a retelling of ‘The Trojan Women’ by Euripides, with Ridewood as Helen being shunned by the other women for the disaster she’s brought down on them, and terrified of what her fate will be when her husband finds her.  Very simple staging at The Lantern – just Helen in the centre, in a long black dress with her hair loose and a shawl pulled protectively around her head and shoulders. 

There’s a screen hiding Andromache and Hecuba, as if in another room.  We hear their murmurings, but it’s Helen that we’re watching.   That screen did sterling service throughout – apart from a chaise in one corner, it was the only element on an uncluttered stage.  Janette Eddisford’s imaginative direction meant that the three women had a lot of costume changes and it completely did away with distracting exits and entrances: they never had to leave the acting space.   

Some very quick changes.  We next saw Helen and Clytemnestra (Mastrosavaki) inside their egg.  They’d taken off their dresses and were clad in some kind of one-piece bodysuits which included shorts, very pale buff coloured.  It made them look like naked infants, curled around each other under the gauzy material of the ‘eggshell’.  After they’d been hatched, they lay in each other’s arms talking baby phrases. “Cooo, Cooo, …”  Reminded me of ‘baby tuckoo’ from the beginning of James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man’ – I wonder if Ridewood’s as fond of the book as I am?

Then we saw Helen growing up, as a young girl in Sparta.  Those bodysuits were a perfect costume decision, allowing all three women to portray the naked military training exercises that the city’s regime demanded.  Helen’s athletic, a great runner, and bright, and beautiful – so of course she’s an irresistible prey for her father’s guest Theseus, who rapes her.  “Well, she was asking for it, wasn’t she?”   


She was twelve.


Theseus was the one who had killed the Minotaur; but this is a feminist reading and Lorraine Yu wasn’t having it – “She was twelve – and they call HIM a hero!”

When she gets to eighteen, she’ll inherit the Crown of Sparta (The system was matrilineal) so she needs a husband.  Her stepfather summons suitors – “nervous boys and grumpy old men” –  and she chooses Menelaos – he’s one of the latter.   (As Mrs. Merton might have asked, many centuries later – “So, Helen, what was it that first attracted you about Menelaos, the richest king in Greece?” …)  

There was a whole collection of masks on a rack at the side of the stage: grotesque creations with huge ugly noses and gross moustaches.  Yu donned one of these to give us a glimpse of Helen’s husband – and a taste of what the marriage was like.

Though they managed to produce a child – her daughter Hermionie.

 Of the ‘seduction’ of Helen, Ridewood gives the woman some control over the event.  Paris has arrived at Sparta on a guest visit, and Helen can’t keep her eyes off the man.   She’s completely overwhelmed by desire.   On the other hand, she tells us that it was mutual – Paris writing ‘I Love Helen’ on the table in spilled wine at the banquet.  (That detail appears in Robert Graves’ book on the Greek Myths – another of Ridewood’s sources?)

Helen manages to control herself for a few nights, but then she heads down the palace passages to Paris’s door.  Mastrosavaki had donned a simple white theatre mask – not ugly like the others – to become the Trojan prince, as they lay together, bathed in a soft blue light …

The next morning, they leave Sparta before dawn, sneak away to Paris’s ship.  (Helen’s careful to take along her dowry gold, and her jewel-encrusted gowns, and a few serving women – she is a QUEEN, after all …)    Royals, Eh? 

There’ll be an Expedition to get Helen back, of course.  Here the show became more like pantomime as they were getting ready to go off to Troy.    Yu and Mastrosavaki sported a selection from the ugly-mask collection, and we cheered wildly as as the different Greek kings were introduced – Agamemnon !!  Menelaos !!  Ajax !!  Odysseus !!  Achilles !!   Whoop! Whoop!

Hector, too, in his own mask, to represent the Trojan side.

But Agamemnon (what an asshole!) had offended the Gods, and they’d demanded a sacrifice before they would produce a wind to take the ‘thousand ships’ to Troy.   (See – Ridewood’s also raided Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’).  The Gods are vicious – inhuman – and they wanted Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia.   (‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods – they kill us for their sport’ ..)  It was Agamemnon’s status, or his child – there was never really any doubt which he would choose …

Helen told us that she’d watched all these warriors from the battlements of Troy, looking down and pointing them out to King Priam.  ( he wearing a long, sad, green mask …)    They were just the leaders, of course – she also mentioned all the common soldiers that they led, and who’d died in their thousands before the city’s wall, or in the trenches in front of the Greek camp, or in the mud churned up by the chariot wheels.   Paris died, along with so many others, cut down by a bowshot.  A wound that even Helen’s old nurse couldn’t reverse.   Homer portrays Paris as rather weak – but Helen (and Ridewood) reminds us that he was a powerful athlete and fighter.  

The end, of course, is inevitable.  And foretold – though who ever believed the prophesies of Cassandra?   

At the close, Helen is lost.  Ridewood can do tragedy so powerfully that it wrenches your guts.  In a wonderfully graphic scene she smears lipstick clumsily over her lips – those lips that men had found beautiful – and wipes it all over her face in a total rejection of her supposed charms.   She wants to escape back to her origins – to the egg she shared with Clytemnestra.      And now there’s a Ridewood invention inserted into the story.  (though I may be wrong: Catie Ridewood’s reading for this project has obviously been wide as well as deep.)

After her rape by Theseus, Helen gives birth to a daughter – Iphigenia!   To save her shame, her sister Clytemnestra takes the child and brings it up as her own.  This is of course the same girl who’s sacrificed, years later, at Aulis.   

So many elements of the Greek myths are cyclic, and Catie Ridewood’s caught the tropes perfectly.    At the very end, as I mentioned at the beginning – we are reminded that Helen’s got the ichor of ZEUS flowing in her veins.   


Human lives are transitory and tragic …

Gods rise above all that.


‘That Witch Helen’ really is a ‘Must-See’ show.     If you’re a classicist – if you’re a feminist – or if you just  love powerful performances, catch the show.     We had all those types in, the night I saw it, and they all gave it a tremendous reception at the end.