BATS Theatre
March 11-28 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

AH, teenage angst. I usually find it so funny. Mark Schultz’s treatment of it in A Brief History of Helen of Troy is so sharply observed that it is often hilarious. But substantial tragedy underpins the bratty behaviour of main character Charlotte, and the result is a rich production imbued with myth and pop culture, deftly delivered by Playground Collective and GladEye Productions.

It’s a mean feat for a male playwright to create a play that deals with so many issues grappled with by modern women – body image, sexuality and the need for external validation to feel good about ourselves. For the protagonist, Charlotte, these issues have been brought to the forefront following the death of her mother, Helen, a beauty who she compares to the famed Greek heroine. Charlotte compares herself to Helen’s abandoned daughter, Hermione, imaging her in her room in Sparta, questioning why he was left behind. Charlotte has been left living with her distant father, Harry, who lashes out at Charlotte in his own grief and emotionally controls her by telling her she is unattractive. Charlotte increasingly turns to fantasy and embraces stereotypes of those she considers are wanted or valued. Mostly she identifies this with the value placed on virginity and sex – she swings erratically between wanting to be a porn star and a nun in her interviews with her careers’ councillor, Gary, and attempts to seduce both her put-upon friend, Franklin, and his older cousin, hot jock quarterback, Freddie. Her increasingly destructive activities are egged on by Heather, her prom queen perfect (imaginary) best friend. Charlotte reaches breaking point, claiming she wants to ‘burn the world down’ in her pursuit of idolised tragedy – the ending is entirely ambiguous as to whether Charlotte’s downward spiral will continue or whether she is on the road to healing.

The play lurches between surreal fantasy and realism and director Heather O’Carroll and designer Tureiti Nelson have wisely chosen to employ subtle shifts to indicate this – lights become rosy hued during Charlotte’s fantasy scenes, and the soundscape shifts slightly, away from the relentless dripping of water or ticking of clocks we hear in other scenes. Charlotte changes in and out of a diminutive, childlike black dress and a diaphanous flowing 70s gown to indicate her mental shifts. The set design is simple yet effective – the main stage doors of BATS are blocked off by large strips of paper, creating an effect of a boarded up house, or a wound that has been incompletely bandaged over. A purple lounge suite is moved around the stage to become Charlotte’s house, the guidance councillor’s office and Franklin’s house.

The cast, particularly Erin Banks as Charlotte, also handle the changes between realism and fantasy well. Banks does an excellent job of creating sympathy for Charlotte even at her worst extremes of selfishness and destructiveness – a confused, hurt and grieving girl can be sensed at the heart of the character. Banks is complemented by Matthew Chamberlain as father Harry, who captures his own grief and anger at the death of his wife well. Esther Rose-Green brings comedy through her brilliant vocal affectations as Heather, and Rowan Bettjeman adds complexity to the role of Freddie. Michael Ness as Gary needs guidance of his own after attempting to engage with Charlotte. The cast is rounded out with Eli Kent as Franklin, the only character who seems determined to ignore Charlotte’s worst excesses and be her friend – although that too comes at a high price.

This all sounds very heavy, but thanks to O’Carroll’s direction some of the more self indulgent excesses of the script are not dwelt on. Plenty of laughs were generated from lines like “It’s like a fact. Like gravity.” I felt like the play was perhaps about 15 minutes too long – several scenes near the end seem to lack the progression to justify their length, but this is not really within the control of this production – it’s more a reflection of the play coming from an emerging playwright. It reminded me of last year’s Mr Marmalade at points, although it does not indulge in fantasy to the extent of that production and has the benefit of being based in a more mature mind. But the themes of alienation, abandonment and rejection are present in both shows, and it is great to see another production of thoroughly contemporary work being produced by young and extremely talented practitioners.