A Brief History of Helen of Troy

BATS Theatre, Wellington

11/03/2009 - 28/03/2009

Production Details

Ugliness is beauty at rest – Jean Genet

Charlotte is fifteen, fat and ugly. Her beautiful mother is dead, her grieving dad can barely talk to her and her best friend is a faggot. To cope with it all Charlotte devises a vivid fantasy world centred around the beautiful Helen of Troy, which provides some comfort, but her mild psychosis is slowly destroying the lives of those around her.
She wants to have a face that launched a thousand ships but will settle for becoming a porn star.
Inspired by Euripides but with its sights set firmly on contemporary America, A Brief History of Helen of Troy is an unsettling and startlingly examination of complacency culture and the politics of beauty.
This hard-hitting, hilarious and horrifying new American script weaves grittily realistic scenes with heightened surrealism to explore the female relationship to beauty, desire and fame.
Come reminisce on your teenage years. Weren’t they sh*t.  

A Brief History of Helen of Troy
11-28 March 2009, 6.30pm
Bookings: book@bats.co.nz
or 04 802 4175 | Cost: $16/13

Charlotte:  Erin Banks
Harry:  Matthew Chamberlain
Heather:  Esther-Rose Green 
Franklin:  Eli Kent 
Freddie:  Rowan Bettjeman
Gary:  Michael Ness

Set Design:  Tureiti Nelson
Lighting Design:  Rachel Marlow 
Sound Design:  Andrew Simpson
Production Manager / Stage Manager:  Claire O'Loughlin
Publicist:  Brianne Kerr 
Costume Construction:  Elizabeth Boyle 
Photography & Graphic Design:  Robin Kerr
Punch by  Patrick Powdrell

Banks on the money

Review by Lynn Freeman 19th Mar 2009

Watching this play is like getting kicked in the guts – in an invigorating, disconcerting and unforgettable kind of way.

American playwright Mark Schultz takes a no-holds-barred view of a dangerously and understandably angst ridden teenage girl who is utterly lost, veering dangerously towards adulthood well before she’s ready for it.

Schultz also looks at the intense pressure on our young people to be beautiful, conventionally and vacuously beautiful.  In this play poor Charlotte is big, ugly, has acne, is socially awkward and forever comparing herself (as others do too) to her stunningly beautiful,  now deceased mother.  She compares herself to the forgotten daughter of Helen of Troy, imprisoned in a dark room, weeping, in her mother’s absence.

Charlotte goes in pursuit of freedom, beauty, fame and adoration.  She is desperate, prepared to go to any lengths.  Helen of Troy is her idol, so beautiful that people are prepared to kill for her.  But Charlotte is not adored, in fact she’s despised, so she flees into a fantasy world where she could be a porn star – "I’m made for sex" – and where a handsome footballer declares his love for her.  

Despite being slim and gorgeous, Erin Banks is absolutely convincing as Charlotte.  She’s vulnerable and dangerous, childlike and too knowing, all in one, with emotions ricocheting all over the place.  Charlotte is lethal but she’s also a victim, of her drunken father’s impermeable grief and bullying, of society and of her all too vivid imagination.

Eli Kent stands out in a strong support cast as a vulnerable young man who pays the price for Charlotte’s erratic and often spiteful behaviour.  His last scene with her is the most moving part of the production for me.  Matthew Chamberlain has a grueling role as Charlotte’s father and he does not flinch from the brutality of the man. 

Much of the success of the production also lies with Heather O’Carroll’s astute direction, the brilliantly evocative mixed soundscapes, like the perpetually dripping tap in the scenes where Charlotte and her father torment each other. 


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Anguish and pain in collision of fantasies

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 13th Mar 2009

We will be lucky if see better all-round acting this year than in Heather O’Carroll’s simple and beautifully balanced production of A Brief History of Helen of Troy, a searing account of a teenager’s confrontation with her demons.

Charlotte’s demons are many. Her mother, who was beautiful and was called Helen, has recently died. Her wreck of a father (Matthew Chamberlain) has taken to drinking and telling her she’s ugly and fat. Her imaginary best friend tells her lots of ‘product’ will make her beautiful and clear up her acne and that she should have sex with her only male friend, a geek (Eli Kent) whose sexuality is as confused as Charlotte’s.

So Charlotte sets out to become as beautiful and famous as Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, who left a daughter, Hermione, behind in Sparta. Reality and fantasy become intertwined as Charlotte searches for love which she imagines she will find if she follows the examples she is surrounded by in her high school and in TV teen soaps and films in which image is everything.

There’s comedy in Mark Schultz’s script in some of the fantasy scenes when Heather (Esther-Rose Green), the imaginary best friend, whose life is perfect – prom queen with perfect parents and the perfect glamorous boyfriend – gives Charlotte advice, and when Freddie (Rowan Bettjeman), the jock football star, preens himself in his ancient warrior-like armour, and when the school guidance councilor (Michael Ness) attempts to persuade Charlotte that a porn star and a nun are not suitable career choices.

But there is also anguish and pain when her fantasies collide with reality, which are made palpable in Erin Bank’s brilliant performance as Charlotte. She nails perfectly the anguish of a love frozen out by a father’s indifference (beautifully modulated by Matthew Chamberlain) and in the darkest scenes (supported by Andrew Simpson’s menacing sound effects) she reveals the desperation of the emotionally dispossessed, particularly when Charlotte tries to imagine what Hermione felt for her lost but famous and beautiful mother.

The play may not be deep but all the performances certainly are.


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Sex and sexiness v love and beauty

Review by John Smythe 12th Mar 2009

Adolescence is an emotional roller coaster at the best of times but when a young woman’s mother dies and her father’s emotional dependency makes him tell her she’s ugly in order to keep her at home, the result is not pretty. It’s quite funny, though, except when it’s tragic.

As written by US playwright Markus Schultz, it is also a splendid opportunity for actors to stretch themselves between sordid reality and romantic fantasy. And they do, in this ideally cast production directed by Heather O’Carroll. Every moment is focused, clear and connected to recognisable subjective human experience.

The text does suffer from a repetition tic imposed on every character, which reeks more of a writer’s mannerism than valid personality traits. Maybe Schultz has scored the dialogue musically, so when people have little to say but a few ‘bars’ to fill, he simply makes them ‘sing’ the same words over and over. In lesser performances than these it could become irritating.

I’m also not sure that this tale of vacuous people with banal aspirations, too self-absorbed and superficial to plumb the true depths of human experience let alone engage with powerful passions, has earned its right to use Helen of Troy as a classical resonator. Perhaps Schultz’s point is that modern America has become so obsessed with sex and sexiness, as opposed to love and beauty, that it is doomed never to attain such mythological stature.  

For Charlotte, the teenager with rock-bottom self-esteem whose mother has died, Helen of Troy, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ – who incidentally was also the protectress of adolescent girls, not that the play mentions it – stands as the ideal because she was the most beautiful, most desired woman in the known world and people would do anything for her, even fight a ten-year war and die for her. But Charlotte’s idea of how to achieve something similar is to become a porn star. Not that she does.

As the play progresses Charlotte’s beautiful but deceased mother appears to adopt the mantle of Helen while Charlotte identifies more with her daughter Hermione, waiting at home and bitter at being left and neglected by her high-achieving mother. But her father, Harry, is no Menelaus.

Erin Banks is achingly accurate in tracking supposedly plain Charlotte’s course through the highs and lows of aspiration and degradation, and on to a desperation that sees her only friend, Franklin, beaten by ignorance (obfuscation intended, to avoid a spoiler). This is no hyper chick that needs to moderate her sugar intake. Banks finds in her a very real person, so devoid of self-esteem and stripped of emotional support that her actions are both comically and tragically inevitable.

Matthew Chamberlain makes Harry’s utter selfishness and emotional myopia credible. I do wonder if he’s having an inverse Tom Cruise moment when he stands on an armchair but he – the epitome of remote – is just looking for the remote.

As the nerdy friend Franklin who ‘hangs’ with Charlotte but doesn’t want to oblige her strange notion of what will make her feel better – either through true friendship or because he inclines another way; you be the judge – Eli Kent is compellingly real.  

Charlotte’s other ‘best friend’ is Heather, the girl who has it all and knows it all, about clothes and makeup and guys anyway. Esther-Rose Glen infuses her with an ebullient energy and treacly loquacity that totally validates why Charlotte is drawn to her, while asking us to judge whether she is a true friend or a user.

Rowan Bettjeman’s Freddie, the arrogant sports jock who apparently can have any girl he wants, also manages to transcend the cliché his character could be to engage us at a ‘what would I do in this situation’ level.

The least stereotypical character is Gary, the guidance counsellor who finds himself involuntarily playing with the fire that is consuming Charlotte’s sense of judgement, and Michael Ness plays him with excellent judgement.

Because the action is filtered through Charlotte’s subjective experience, fantasy sequences intersect with reality and there are times when we are challenged to discern which zone she/we are in. This adds to the intrigue throughout and brings us to an ending that is riddled with ambiguity. Are we witnessing a breakthrough, out of grief and into a healing phase where the balm of unconditional love may at last be applied? Or is the yet another step towards degradation, from the morally moribund to the morally repugnant?

The set design by Tureiti Nelson, lit by Rachel Marlow, features strips of paper over the portals of the BATS stage. I take this to be band-aid imagery, inadequate for the emotional wounds that suppurate throughout the play. But when Harry strips some away allowing light to flood in at the end, they read as barriers to progress, now removed. So an optimistic reading of the ending seems appropriate … unless the bright light is blinding them even more from reality …

Whichever way you look at it, this production of A Brief History of Helen of Troy is an absorbing 90 minutes of theatre, thanks especially to a splendidly unified cast superbly directed.


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