If today we’re all too familiar with the concept of fake news, Euripides was a few centuries ahead of his time when he wrote Helen in 412 BC. An alternative view on the Trojan War, the play argues that Helen – whose seduction by Paris was the cause of the decade-long conflict – was actually in hiding in Egypt the whole time, while the Helen taken to Troy was no more than a copy created by the goddess Hera to punish Paris. Unfortunately, nobody knows about this, so they all blame Helen for the devastation waged in her name, leaving her desperate to expose the lie and save her reputation.
The story’s picked up in Egypt following the fall of Troy, when who should arrive shipwrecked and scantily clad on their shores but Helen’s husband Menelaus. His phantom wife conveniently vanishes into thin air just as he re-encounters the real one, and together they trick the Egyptian king Theoclymenus – who wants to marry Helen himself – into letting them go.
This new version of Euripides’ play comes from Theatre of Heaven and Hell, a company dedicated to producing absurdist plays and reviving forgotten gems. Helen is a bit of both; a little more comedy than tragedy, it moves through the story at a brisk pace, and doesn’t shy away from exposing its more farcical aspects. There are moments in Michael Ward’s production that feel a bit like Monty Python does Ancient Greece, contrasting sharply with the play’s slightly sinister opening and closing sequences, in which the masked and robed Chorus set the scene to a dramatic soundtrack.
As difficult as it is to categorise, Helen nonetheless makes for an entertaining hour of theatre. The women come out on top – Helen herself and the prophetess Theonoe, played by Elena Clements and Sarah Day-Smith respectively – emerge not only with the most dignity but also all the moral fibre, while the men are made to look like fools. Nicholas Bright and Darren Ruston play the famous leaders Menelaus and Theoclymenus as comically simple souls who are nothing without women to tell them what to do, and Brian Eastty and Marius Clements have two of the funniest scenes as messengers who patiently expose their rulers’ mistakes.
A surprising twist on an old story, Helen touches on some very modern themes, from feminism and victim blaming to fake news and the pointlessness of war. The scene in which one of Menelaus’ men questions their reasons for going to war in the first place is funny but painfully topical, and the responsibility placed on Helen’s shoulders for the actions of men invites us to ponder gloomily how much attitudes have really changed several centuries later.
It’s an odd little play, which is nothing like you might expect (let’s be honest: you hear Euripides, you don’t expect lines like, “We went to war for a cloud?”) but Helen is undeniably good – if slightly surreal – fun.
Helen is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 27th August.