BBC Radio 3, 27 February 2011
Euripides' play came across in Ellen Dryden's production as a life-affirming
drama in which Helen's (Frances Barber's) strength of character not only shone through but provided a means by which opposing
forces could be reconciled and wrongs righted. This has a special resonance in the contemporary world, where territories have
been illegally occupied by invading forces, and other powers seem powerless to intervene. Euripides offers a practical solution
to such impasses; if leaders remain true to themselves and their beliefs, then good will emerge. Virtue breeds its own rewards.
Having started with this portentous comment, I have to admit that the production
was extremely funny in parts. Barber's Helen bore a strong vocal resemblance to Amanda Barrie's Cleopatra in Carry on
Cleo - a coquettish, outwardly innocent figure pretending to be a pushover for the men around her, particularly Menelaus
(James Purefoy). Of course this was nothing more than a performance: Helen knew precisely what she wanted in playing one side
off against another, using different vocal strategies to achieve her ends. Sometimes she put on a face "that launched a thousand
ships," but on other occasions she played the innocent, encouraging her suitors to make their own mistakes.
Helen was also responsible for driving the play's action - as a result, the chorus
(Anna Francolini, Catherine Russell, Laura Rees) were relegated into the background. Dryden treated them like a backing
group offering support for Helen's lead vocalist, a strategy that brought her diplomatic achievements into sharper focus.
Dryden treated Helen as a feminist parable, inviting women to assume
more active roles, while suggesting that they did not have to use "masculine" methods to achieve their ends. Rather than using
dominant methods, they could adopt a more indirect approach - by saying one thing and doing precisely the opposite, for instance.
Some might call this strategy deceitful, but only if it is looked at in binarist (i.e. masculinist) terms. From another angle,
"deceit" can invite a more ambiguous interpretation, showing Helen's ability to resist easy categorization by her male peers.
Don Taylor's translation combined racy colloquialism with verbal devices
- alliteration, zeugma and hanging lines - reminding us that Helen is actually a verse-drama, as well as a play with
a strong social and political thrust. I thoroughly enjoyed this revival, which once again confirmed the capacity of ancient
Greek drama to speak to contemporary sensibilities.