Review: Helen, TakeOver Festival, York Theatre Royal

It’s awesome when theatre companies draw on the past to create new, fresh and original work. This is what Actors of Dionysus has done with its new piece Helen, which brings to the audience a modern response to the Greek myth about the mysterious Helen of Troy. It’s also the penultimate show of York Theatre Royal’s TakeOver Festival, and the piece captures the energy and vibrance of the festival perfectly.

Helen of Troy was a pretty shady figure, and it’s disputed what her role in the world actually was. But whatever assumptions we make, we often come to the conclusion that her ‘kidnap’ was the big spark that ignited the flames of the Trojan War. In Helen, we see a modern version of the character, who spends her days trying to seduce her guard, watching television and taking drugs in order to fill the void created by the absence of true love.

Helen (played by Tamsin Shasha) is an incredibly interesting character to watch, and Shasha’s portrayal is excellent. She breathes life into the character and brings her to life through brilliant physicality, giving the character a unique voice that communicates to the audience in an effective way. Helen’s guard (Marcos Tajadura) is also excellent, providing a silent and ominous contrast to the lively woman. The two work very well together in this tight two-hander, with their physical performances interweaving to create the image of a woman on the brink of permanent mental anguish.

The scenography of the piece has also been well considered and thought through. The minimalistic set design helps the audience to focus on the characters, and enhances the actors’ performances of them. The sound and lighting also work well together, providing substance to the piece and illuminating key and powerful moments in the performance, while also creating some stunning visual imagery that adds a fantastic aesthetic quality to the piece. Burning yellow washes and tinges of bleak white combine and colour the piece with the backdrop of a nation on the brink of war, with the haunting accompaniment of machine gun sound effects adding to such imagery. It is against this backdrop that the performers thrive, evoking a variety of emotional responses from the audience and gripping them. There are some interesting acrobatic performances here as well, with the set giving aid to the acrobatic ability of the two performers as they attempt to claw their way out of a world that has exiled their characters.

Helen is a visual treat, and brings to life the themes and ideas from the myth that have long since been the subject of investigation and intrigue. The performances are brilliant and so is the scenography of the piece, and whenever Helen stops by a theatre near you, it’s well worth checking out.

Helen was part of York Theatre Royal’s TakeOver Festival. For more information, visit the TakeOver Festival website.