Helen ran off with Paris to Troy, right? Wrong. Well, wrong according to Euripides’ Helen, which tells a very different version of the famous ancient myth. Helen is in Egypt, spirited away by the goddess Hera, while an airy doppelganger lured the massed forces of Greece to the decade-long slaughter of Troy’s beaches. Pestered by the local king, she waits and watches the coastline and dreams of reunion with her lost husband.
This is the Globe’s first bash at a Greek tragedy, and Helen blossoms impressively in the open air. The set may look like something put together for a school play (tinselly shades of JATATD), but its multiple levels give the players scope to belt frantically about the stage without falling foul of the theatre’s sightlines. Frank McGuinness has produced a text that rambles cheekily between high tragic diction and colloquial bluntness, and Deborah Bruce’s company romp gleefully among its quirky, quicksilver twists and turnings.
Penny Downie’s Helen is a skittishly imperious ageing beauty, who’s been on her own too long to fret about the moral niceties of getting her man back, and getting home pronto. She’s matched by Paul McGann as Menelaus, an incorrigible chancer who’s managed to come through a disastrous war with his considerable charm still intact. And in a production that wears its irreverence on its sleeve, heavenly spokespersons Castor and Pollux (Fergal McElherron and James Lailey) appear like be-winged versions of Paul and Barry Chuckle, cheerfully elucidating semi-divine destinies while grappling with a range of uncooperative props.
This is Euripides without tears, a happy ending snatched from catastrophe, and the funniest Greek tragedy you’re likely to come across. It’s left to a self-mockingly lugubrious chorus, and Ian Redford’s thoughtful servant to hang onto a slender shred of gravitas amid the jollity. Not all wars are fought for the right reasons, they remind us, and good people suffer terribly for bad causes. But such lowering reflections take a back-seat in this irresistibly upbeat reading of a play that celebrates unlikely second chances, and reconciliation against all the odds.