Euripides' Ion: The Lost Boy Found
translated by Kenneth McLeish
Directed by Nick Philippou
Actors Touring Company,
Cambridge Drama Centre,
Nov. 25, 1994.
Reviewed by Niall Slater
Clare Hall, Cambridge
Chorus, Kreousa, Kilissa (Photo by Yannis Alexis Filias)
The Ion is experiencing something of a revival at the moment, with productions playing in London at the RSC and two touring companies, one doing the play in modern Greek and another, reviewed here, in English, both of the latter directed by Nick Philippou. Enthusiastic press notices greeted the RSC production, which quickly sold out its fall run, although it will return to the Pit in the Barbican shortly. On the evidence of the performance in Cambridge, the Actors Touring Company production deserves to do just as well.
This is a richly textured and multivalent production, as is clear from the moment we see the set design (by Apostolos Vettas). A wheel hub, whose lit center varies in intensity with the mood of the play (and the presence of Apollo) hovers almost at the ceiling, connected by filaments or spokes to the stage surface below. Behind the spokes of this half wheel lies a pedimental composition of polished metal silhouettes, whose center is the entrance to the temple at Delphi, flanked first by frontal chariot horses and then bending or falling human figures. The composition ranges from the serenity of Oenomaeus's horses on the temple at Olympia to the explosion of energy on the lost west pediment of the Parthenon. Below the entrance extends a polished metal ramp, which functions as both temple entrance and altar. The effect, especially as the lighting transforms the metal piece from warm gold to tungsten-bright silver and back, is powerfully emotive but far from univocal. Is this the chariot of the sun, evoking an identification with Helios? Does the composition move from order to chaos and/or back again? Like so much in Euripides' ironic script and this deftly paced production, meanings and characters can change in a moment.
The entire production is played with only six actors, a production necessity that offers more surprising gains than sacrifices. The opening and closing divinities of the plays are therefore cross-gendered, for example, although this works better for Anne Rabbitt's sprightly and boyish Hermes as prologue than for Michael Roberts' closing Athene (of which more below). The two-woman chorus of Rabbitt and Kate Fenwick are highly individualized and can be further augmented by Kreousa's elderly servant, here played as a nurse by Ann Firbank (of which more, again, below). Only Fenwick's rendition of the Priestess (e.g., the Pythia), clad in an all-encompassing veil to conceal her features in this unmasked production, seemed a serious problem as she struggled to create with gestures an impression of age that neither voice nor gait could sustain.
The plot of the Ion has come to seem startlingly modern. In these days of serial polygamy, we all know step-, adoptive, and blended families which, while they may not include long-suppressed rapes or suddenly discovered adult children, stagger under the weight of reconciling individuals torn from old, comfortable security and thrust suddenly into new relationships with parents they must now 'love,' because all children 'naturally' love their parents. Despite the (ironic?) modern subtitle, this production's Ion (Gary Turner) is no boy or early adolescent, but a young man of ephebic age, as he should be, capable of childlike innocence but also of the terrifyingly righteous anger of young men whose new strength is wedded to old certainties. Turner captures not only Ion's loving but needy nature, the child who has been everyone's pet but only the responsibility of the elderly and therefore strange Pythia, but also the shaking of his real religious faith when he must contemplate and finally acknowledge that the gods not only countenance, but do, injustice.
Xuthus (spelled Ksouthos in the program) emerges in Michael Roberts' interpretation as a more sympathetic figure and less of a buffoon than one might expect from a cold reading of the text. His and Ion's encounter as he exits the temple and meets his promised son showed none of the homosexual overtones that seem to me part of the 'comedy' of the text here and the source of Ion's first worries. The most powerful man in his own world, Xuthus is willing to listen at least briefly to the doubts and fears of this newly rediscovered son, making some moments of surprisingly camaraderie on stage, but he makes clear soon enough he intends to have his own way.
The play as a whole, however, belongs to Kreousa, stunningly acted by Shelley King, whose world of female values and solidarity stands starkly opposed to her husband's easy opportunism (into which we see Ion subtly beginning to slip). That female world is tightly knit together by the confidences and sympathies we see shared among the queen, her servants in the chorus, and Ann Firbank's nurse. Although in a panel discussion following the performance the director made it known that the gender change for the nurse was a matter of casting necessity (communicated by him to Kenneth McLeish very early on in the translation process), this choice seemed in action not only natural but necessary. Purists might object that a Nurse could not appear at the off- stage banquet given for men and act the part of bustling, laughter- inducing servant in the style of Hephaestus such as we hear of in the messenger speech (transferred here to one of the chorus), but that is of no significance for the onstage performance. Far more compelling is the argument from the painful but also cathartic scene in which Kreousa reveals her rape to this old and faithful servant. Indeed, in the present at least heightened awareness of the trauma of rape victims, even decades after their assaults, the truly daring and difficult choice would now be attempting to stage this confessional scene with a man as confessor.
As it should be, the play's most powerful scenes are those between Ion and his mother, first as the sensitive but innocent youth senses the royal visitor's pain and doubts and tried to reassure her, then as he wrestles with her shocking accusations against Apollo, and finally as his youthful desire for vengeance slowly gives way to the staggering recognition that he has found the one person he has most longed to find. Their reconciliation and embrace, framed on the polished metal ramp/altar, was surely a conscious reminiscence of Michelangelo's Pieta---making it all the more painful when Ion breaks that embrace and moves away to continue his questioning of his mother and her story of divine rape.
Given so many strengths of this production, so many superbly nuanced exchanges outlining the desire for complete reconciliation and erasure of past pain, was it inevitable that the finale deus ex machina should seem so unsatisfying? That is of course the central question for recent scholarship about this play, and this production's answer is an unambiguous 'yes.' The various off-white and tan costumes of the play, evoking a vague blend of a timeless Greece and the British Raj (particularly for the Athenian visitors' costumes) are the background to the violent shock of an Athene clad in metallic silver cloth with a gold aegis and a purposely alienating, Corinthian-style helmet with mohawk of spikes, which again completely obscured the actor's features. This Athene had no sympathy for luckless humans, as a cackling laugh in her speech made crystal clear, and those humans thought it the better part of valor to say anything which might appease her and then get off the stage and out of her sight as quickly as possible.
The question remains, though: is this the only possible way to play the ending? Here the discussion afterward provided a tantalizing glimpse of an alternative. As noted above, Nick Philippou has directed this play simultaneously in this English language production for Actors Touring Company and in a modern Greek production for the Piramatiki Skini of Greece, a production which will also play here in England. According to the director, in the Greek production that Kreousa's acceptance of Apollo's will is somehow genuine, but he felt that ending was just not possible for an English audience. A hint only---and the rest is silence--- but the questions of audience horizon of expectation against which two so diametrically opposed interpretations of the ending of the Ion could play still cry out for answers.
The success of the present production in reclaiming the Ion for the contemporary repertoire is not in question, nor is the play's claim to the title of real and not just 'romantic' tragedy. One hopes that a number of companies will now take up the challenge of his and other late Euripidean plays, absent far too long from our stages.
Niall W. Slater
Clare Hall, Cambridge and Emory University
(Niall Slater is working on a book on Aristophanes.)