Co-devised by Tamsin Shasha and Jonathan Young
Director: Jonathan Young
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
AoD (Actors of Dionysus) was founded in 1993 to put modern flesh on the bones of ancient Greek drama. Helen is their take on the story of Helen of Troy and reimagines her within a modern political conflict setting. Helen’s story trails away after her return from Troy in classical literature and here we meet a middle-aged Helen in some form of political exile. Still reliant on her legendary beauty for her political power and influence, she now spends her days in a daze of prescription medication and Botox, in recovery from plastic surgery procedures to maintain the illusion of youth. Clearly this adds a timely commentary on the current media obsession with youth and the insistence on women in public life conforming to unrealistic standards of physical and facial beauty no matter their rôle. Her only company is a mute guard of her own choosing, who tends to her daily needs with a nicely modulated mix of concern, compassion, distance and contempt.
Helen is an aerial theatre show with an emphasis on theatre. Aerial elements are smoothly integrated into the action. The luxurious four-poster bed that dominates Helen’s ‘prison’ acts as the rigging structure and the company forsake the oft-used wires and safety cables and harnesses in favour of sensual silks tied and draped around the bed structure. This allows the aerial sections to flow within the drama without technical distractions and the effort this demands quietly impresses.
Helen is played by co-writer Tamsin Shasha, and, in the lone presence of the literally-mute guard – played with considerable charm, intensity and physical beauty by Spanish circus artist and physical performer Marcos Tajadura – Shasha carries the full weight of the narrative drama almost as a one-hander. Her Helen is wonderfully complex: an intriguing blend of sensuality, sadness and terrible self-delusion. Imperious and fearful. Her time in exile is dramatically running out as her husband is dead and armed civil unrest is progressing rapidly and ominously towards her safe haven. As she is denounced in the media for war crimes she is baffled to comprehend her complicity in, she faces an uncertain future with a sense of mounting panic – not least because she fears exposure to the world’s media without her legendary beauty intact – should she flee, remain defiant or choose a nobler exit?
Dora Schweitzer’s set and costumes effectively create a world of lavish claustrophobia and illusion that starkly contrasts with Matt Eaton’s wonderful sound design that mixes music, exquisitely-timed snatches of TV sound – as Helen and her guard monitor events on the news with growing alarm – and a menacing melange of approaching rocket fire and machine gun noise as enemy forces advance on Helen’s hideout.
Helen is an unexpectedly complex show that is well-designed and does a neat job of re-contextualising the ancient legend in a modern setting: an all-too familiar yet distant world of armed political conflict and the vanity, emptiness and delusion of political power, especially when it relies on the arrogant abuse of others. Tamsin Shasha is complex and compelling and the piece effectively manages to make the audience care what happens to both characters, although both remain ciphers is their own way.
Runs until 30 September