Friday 28 July 2023

Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra: Sisters doin' it for themselves in Cygnets

Helen and Clytemnestra. Sisters whose place in mythology has been one of persecution and revile. One is responsible for selfishly causing the Trojan War and the other brutally murdered her husband as he bathed. Nasty women indeed. But is there more to the story, to these women, than meets the eye? In The Liminal Space's upcoming production, Cygnets, the siblings reunite and open up about their shared history and the truth behind their actions.

Emerging actors Rebekah Carton and Delta Brooks take on the roles of Clytemnestra and Helen respectively, but it took the two performers a while to find a role that spoke to them, and challenged them, as performers, as women, as people. "Delta and I had been looking for a two-hander for a long time and were uninspired by the choices available to us. We had this ongoing banter about being ‘Gemini twins’, and I suggested perhaps devising a work around Castor and Polydeuces, the original geminis," Carton recalls. "It was only when reading into these characters that I connected the dots: Clytemnestra and Helen were sisters. Not only that, twins. How did I not know this? I had studied classics, I had read the plays, I’d even played Helen in The Trojan Women!"

"As I went down the rabbit hole, it became clear that these women were not depicted together anywhere. Not in art, literature, history, mythology, yet their brothers are rarely portrayed apart. In fact, they loved each other so much that one shared his immortality with the other so that they could be together forever. I found that weeks later, I couldn't let go of wh these women were denied a history? A relationship? A childhood? Love? And what might happen if we allowed these two formidable women to share the stage?"

What surprised the two in their research, was just how little there was on these two women, and needing to get a bit creative with attempting to understand who they were. "Early on I found this book called ‘Who's Who in Classical Mythology’, which is like an encyclopedia of significant characters," Carton tells me. "For Helen's entry, there were two and a half pages of text. Clytemnestra had one paragraph: two sentences about her marriage to Agamemnon and children, and the rest was a description of her crimes. I relied heavily on Spartan history when researching and breathing life into Clytemnestra. We know she would have trained in the gymnasium, participating in the same fitness regime as the boys. We know she would have received the same education. And we know Spartan women were spared ‘menial labor’ so they could focus on motherhood."

"Clytemnestra was also a public figure, a wife and leader beside her famous husband. But she was also a fighter, fiercely independent and shrewd. We know women like this today - Hilary Clinton, Beyoncé, Tina Turner - women who were let down and fought for their own. These women, and more became my inspiration for Clytemnestra," she says.

"In approaching the construction of my version of Helen of Troy, I drew a lot of inspiration from the maligned women of pop culture that have come after her," Brooks adds. "Anna Nicole-Smith, Marie Antoinette, Marylin Monroe and Princess Diana - women who became playthings and scapegoats in the media and were both bolstered and torn down as images or icons depending on the mood. Recently culture seems to be reconsidering the way they have viewed these women and acknowledging their complex personal histories and the effect of iconising and commodifying their stories. It's satisfying to get to give Helen - perhaps one of the earliest poster girls for female “bad behaviour” this same treatment."

The synopsis for Cygnets states "Helen of Troy. The face that launched a thousand ships. Clytemnestra of Sparta. Killed her husband in the bath after the war", but this is not an assessment that Brooks and Carton necessarily agree with, and hope to bring the complex layers of their actions to light. "Both women have such incredibly epic storylines in mythology but certain iterations seems to treat them as a “when women snap” warning of the power of feminine wiles and cunning. They are never given the chance to be in a relationship with each other," Brooks says. "We were interested in the moments between their big plot points, their often over-passed early experiences, and how would they reflect in themselves and each other. We wanted to take them from portraits or statues or archetypes and make them fully formed women and understand how you get to be seen as Helen the Whore or Clytemnestra the Murderess."

"In Helen's case, there are events in her mythology that pre-date “Troy”, which we deep dive into and give the rest of her story a different meaning. There is also so much conflict in the various classical tellings of her tale: did she run off to Troy willingly, was she captured and trafficked, or was she never really there at all and a changeling sent in her place? Even the circumstances of her death are unclear with numerous versions of her demise. It seems she has shape shifted through history fulfilling the purpose of fronting whatever morals needed to be learnt at the time. I hope we give her the space to weave her own narrative."

It's a sentiment shared by Carton with regards to her thoughts on Clytemnestra. "
Clytemnestra is primarily known in literature for murdering her husband, and in turn being murdered by her children as punishment. But I think we often forget that she was born and raised to become a mother. She was a passionate matriarch who loved her children so fiercely that she would kill for them. If she had never given birth to her daughter, if she had not loved her babies so completely, then perhaps she would not have killed her husband, and as a result, we may never have even heard of her. Perhaps only as a wife beside a king, mentioned in the opening line of his biography. She may not be the only mother to lose a child in mythology, but she is the only one who chooses revenge over grief. I think that's what draws me to her as a character. She assumes the traditionally masculine role of the soldier, the judge, the avenger and takes justice into her own hands. I think that's pretty bad-ass."

"These sisters spent a lifetime playing the roles they were expected to and when they stepped out of those roles and took their lives into their own hands, they were vilified. We want audiences to see these women as three dimensional people, not only capable of evil, but of love, of fear, of humor, of absurdness," Carton explains.

"Hopefully Cygnets makes people rethink the way they have thought of these women in the past, that they see them as more than dramatic devices or femme fatales and consider the ways in which myths about women in culture are crafted," Brooks concludes. "Let's open a discussion on the part the women at the center of this cultural intrigue have in shaping the narratives that form around them? How is the cycle of trauma inherited or broken and could this have been different if these women were afforded the opportunity to band together and not feel alone in their experiences?"

Only one way to find your tickets below to the limited season of Cygnets.

Show Details

Venue: Theatre Works Explosives Factory, 67 Inkerman St, St. Kilda

Season: 16 - 26 August | Tues - Sat 7:30pm
Duration: 100 minutes

Tickets: $48.24 Full | $37.74 Concession
Bookings: Theatre Works

Image Credit: Morgan Roberts

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