This very loose interpretation of the legend of Helen of Troy, whose irresistible beauty provoked a devastating war, combines both conventional spoken dialogue and stylised physical theatre. We find Helen trapped in her bedroom, as her husband’s empire crumbles around her; with the enemy at the doors of her palace, she appears destined for an ugly fate. But her timeless beauty and age-old wiles still serve her well, as she spars with the solider who both protects and confines her.
The elegant set, draped with white fabric, may look classical – but make no mistake, this story is set firmly in the modern day. We can tell it’s the modern day because there’s a Macbook, a rolling news channel on TV, and a rather incongruous dance to the tune of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. We’re in Syria, perhaps, or somewhere at the business end of the Arab Spring; the low rumbling sound of artillery bombardment forms a threatening backdrop to much of the play.
Tamsin Shasha delivers an appropriately seductive performance in her role as Helen. At first, she epitomises frenzied restlessness, thrashing around in an almost overwhelming display of raw emotion. But for me, her character became more real in the subtler later scenes, as we begin to see a glimpse of her fabled irresistible charm. There’s an echo of the fall of the Ceaușescus, too, as a helicopter takes off from the roof, and Helen – in denial about her defeat – calls out in vain for a rescue we suspect will never come.
Helen’s soon joined by another, strongly-built figure, dressed in combat trousers and black balaclava. Played by Tyler Fayose, this is her protector, her jailer – and possibly her lover. The power-play between the two characters forms the cornerstone of the plot, which is often expressed in physical performance around the frame of Helen’s four-poster bed. Once we’re past the rather wild opening, the dance-like movements and aerial work display athletic grace; the imagery is crisp, clean, and often beautiful.
But the storytelling, in contrast, is somewhat muddy. At the start, Helen is trapped within her cage-like bed – medicated and restrained, like a gothic image of an inmate of a Victorian asylum. By the end, she’s sassy, collected, and thoroughly in control. How does she get from there to here? It just sort-of happens. Similarly, there’s a suggestion early on that her famous beauty is maintained by less-than-natural means, but that intriguing thought is all but forgotten halfway through.
So Helen fires off a lot of ideas but, frustratingly, omits to develop most of them. The core concept though, of the mythical figure as a modern-day manipulator, works well; a scene where she rehearses a conversation she plans to have with a general is particularly effective in revealing her true character. And the physical performance contains a fair few moments that linger in the mind.