Euripides al fresco may not exactly sound like a summertime treat, but this infrequently performed late romance, in Frank McGuinness’ playful new version, turns out to be quite the crowdpleaser — sometimes to a fault. Helmer Deborah Bruce takes the original’s irreverent spin on its source tale — the story of the Trojan war — as a cue to present the material at a heightened, ironic remove. Visual excesses aside, the evening overall is a eye-opening success due to Penny Downie’s bravura performance in the title role and the startling contemporaneity of the material as retold here.
The cheekiness of both play and production is established in the first moments, as Downie struts onstage alone and announces (with just the right pause for effect), “My name is Helen — Helen … of Egypt.” Euripides’ brash conceit is that the Trojan War was fought on a false premise; the real face that launched a thousand ships was sent by the goddess Hera for safekeeping to the banks of the Nile, and it was a ghost version of Helen about whom all the fuss was made. Thus, as one character baldly puts it, “we fought the Trojan War over nothing” — a point with contemporary resonances (Helen as the original WMD) that the creative team, in a rare moment of subtlety, allow audiences to make and absorb for themselves.
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Meanwhile, 17 years have elapsed as the real Helen hopes against hope that her beloved husband, Menelaus, will come and find her — thus making sense of the casting of Downie, who, in her slithery white gown and flame-red hair, is appropriately gorgeous but unmistakably over 40 (she recently played Gertrude to David Tennant’s Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company).
The story that ensues is enjoyably straightforward: Meneleus (the agreeably gruff and buffed Paul McGann, “Withnail and I”) turns up, we get a lovely recognition scene, and the rest of the play is spent springing Helen from the grasping clutches of the Egyptian king Theoclymenes (an amusingly dense Rawiri Paratene).
Downie and McGann’s confidence and chemistry — and the speakability and humor of McGuinness’ text — anchor the production. In a space this large and potentially unruly, playing to the gallery is a virtue, and there is a strong complicity built up between auds and lead performers.
Other design and production choices are more difficult to credit, however, starting with Gideon Davey’s inexcusably hideous set: a white-and-bright-yellow playing area on which Helen’s name is being erected in huge cutout Greek lettering, a lumpy black graveyard and a tacky silver curtain from behind which a countertenor (James Purefoy) sometimes emerges to serenade the action.
In a work that is otherwise refreshingly feminist — Helen, the universal symbol of hussydom, is here recuperated as a loyal wife; Theoclymenes’ sister Theonoe (Diveen Henry) helps save the day; and even the trash-talking gatekeeper is played by a woman (Penny Layden) — it’s disappointing that the chorus is played almost exclusively by men in bedraggled drag. While this was probably dictated by the casting needs of the Globe’s whole summer season, an opportunity to employ more female actors was missed here, and it’s not clear whether any particular commentary is intended by having dirty and very masculine-looking men imitating female behavior.
Despite the production’s sometimes thrown-together quality, the evening overall proves uplifting and thought-provoking, and packs quite a few quality laughs; it’s an unexpected treat.