Review of Euripides' Helen

29/30 November 2013

' a marvellous play, particularly because Helen is such a drama queen and Menelaus such a stodgy foil to her ..'. This is Inga Mantle's explanation on the website for the production of what prompted her to set up the small company 'Athens of the North' to put on a production of the play, in a new translation by Andrew Wilson.

In the event, the production well justified her judgement. Andrew Wilson's translation is colloquial and engaging, without losing faith with the original, and gives scope for the experimentation with choral movement and music Inga Mantle planned as part of the production. The Helen ran for two nights at the end of November 2013, in the elegant surroundings of the Georgian church, St. Andrew's and St. George's West, in George Street, Edinburgh.

The circular space, centred on a raised dais and central pulpit, was a sympathetic setting for the dramatic interaction of the main characters – the pulpit being a useful hiding place -, for arresting entries of the chorus from the main door and for the two 'happy ending' deities whose machina was the front balcony above the audience. A hint of Egyptian splendour – exotic for the original Greek audience as well as the Scottish one – was provided by Anne Seaton's minimal but evocative stage set, as simple as Helen Berrington's costumes.

The play was directed by Andy Fraser, who kept a lively pace but allowed a sense of otherness and space for the choral odes and their exchanges with the protagonists. The production was a departure from the original practice, in that there were different actors for the different parts, and natural gender allocations were retained. But the music, sung by both protagonists and the chorus in the places where they would have sung originally, took the audience closer to the original setting of the action. Composed by Jamie Dunnett and Inga Mantle, in its faithfulness to the modes of Greek music (insofar as we understand them), the music enhanced the speech and, combined with measured choral dance patterns, brought to vivid life the chorus' physical and dramatic pivotal role between protagonists and audience – indeed, several students in the audience said afterwards that they now saw why Greek plays had choruses! Iain Thompson was the cor anglais player giving the single haunting line of melody to telling effect.

Helen herself was played by Fiona Main; an exuberant performance which was only marred by a pace of speaking which was too fast and did not take account of the acoustics of the church – a factor the company should note with great care for future productions. Menelaus, Neil French, was suitably stolidly heroic and susceptible to female charms. Of the remainder of the cast, of particular note were the old janitor at the Egyptian palace (Alison Carcas, in wonderful cackling 'old wifie' mode), Theonoe, the priestess (Susan McNaught, who was splendidly audible and lively) and Michael Scott (Second Messenger, whose narrative powers reminded you why radio sometimes out-dramatises television). Walter Thomson gave focus and depth to the choral odes and movement as their leader, a role which could well be developed in future productions.

The company is to be warmly commended for its innovations in music and choral movement, and encouraged to seek further collaboration with Andrew Wilson in expanding the range of Greek plays staged with such convincing panache.

JG, 2013.