After Nicholas Wright and David Lan's Athenian Galton-and Simpson version at The Pit comes the Actors Touring Company's take on Euripides' 2,400-year-old Greek comedy. To the Greeks, "comedy" meant more than the ribaldry of Aristophanes, and simply described any play with a happy ending; there didn't have to be guffaws along the way, although there were usually a few smiles. This production of Ion gets the balance just right between the humorous potential of the plot and the restless, questioning intellect that Euripides could never suppress for long in his plays.
Kenneth McLeish's excellent translation avoids the trap that David Lan often fell into, of throwing the poetical baby out with the portentous bathwater: his language is vigorous and upstanding, but never archaic or declamatory. As the story unfolds of Ion, the temple servant of Apollo at Delphi, becoming reunited with his mother Kreousa (who had abandoned him after the god had fathered him years earlier in Athens), McLeish catches the alternating moments of agonised uncertainty and common-or-garden daftness in a seamless verbal fabric. Nick Philippou's direction takes a corresponding line, allowing the mood of each episode to emerge naturally rather than corralling the whole thing into a spurious visionary overview. It could have made for a production of disparate bittiness, but thankfully doesn't in the least.
As Ion himself, Garry Turner is innocent without being ingenuous. The subtitle Philippou has given the play carries inevitable connotations of Peter Pan, and Turner conveys the appropriate sense of knowing no other world than that in which he is discovered, and of good-hearted bewilderment when he learns how matters are conducted beyond the temple precincts. Shelley King's Kreousa is from the start a woman with a dark secret and broods more than strictly necessary, but her scenes with Ion are without exception powerful: their final revelatory dialogue here carries a Lorca-esque intensity.
Kreousa's husband Ksouthos, a kind of fourth-century BC Tim Nice-But-Dim, is enjoyed by Michael Roberts: on being told by the god's oracle that the first man he sees on leaving the temple will be his son, he feverishly embraces Ion with a breathless, "All right, found it, got it, found it!" (Roberts also provides a dea ex machina in the form of the goddess Athene who is as camp as a row of chalets at Butlins.) The three-strong chorus are given nicely individuated characters, with the welcome result that choric sections come across as genuine conversations rather than set-pieces.
The simple but striking design (centred on a golden sun whose rays embrace the stage both as metallic tapes framing the action and as a searing lantern illuminating it) and the impressive but unshowy score are supplied by members of Piramatiki Skini from Thessaloniki, whose parallel production in modern Greek (also directed by Philippou) can be seen during the play's run at the Lyirc. Euripides' play itself was hailed as a glorious rediscovery on its recent RSC unveiling, but ATC's production does it more comprehensive justice.
Written for What's On In London.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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