Performed by the Actors Touring company
at the Cambridge Drama Centre
25 November 1994
English Version by David Lan
Directed by Nicholas Wright
Performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company
in The Pit, Barbican Arts Centre
28 January 1995
Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
Departments of Classics and Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
Are some directorial choices obvious? These two performances, laid over one another like transparencies in an anatomy textbook, show startling congruences--and equally startling divergences. The result is an overpowering sense of deja vu at some moments and a continual, inevitable comparison between the ATC's and the RSC's productions. From that comparison emerges a strong sense not only of the inherent malleability of any dramatic text, but of some of the pitfalls a director faces when undertaking a Greek tragedy-- particularly when he has a large budget.
Some similarities in the representation of a given text may be inevitable; others seem unaccountable. Both productions cast male actors as Athena and bald actors as Xuthus (spelled Ksouthos in the ATC version.) Both featured costumes dominated by the natural tones of unbleached, undyed fabric, the khakis and off-whites favored by British explorers. (ATC went as far as pith helmets and shooting sticks, shades of the British Raj.) Both brought the chorus on with tourists' guidebooks, breaking the lines up among the players. Both had Ion adopt Xuthus' style of clothing for his entrance after the assassination attempt. Not surprisingly, the programs for both shows used images of a woman embracing a child on the cover, although the RSC's choice of Eirene and Ploutos is a bit puzzling. They were both, at the root, very British productions, their visual symbols drawn from the fabric of British history. But ATC's collaboration with the Greek company Piramatiki Skini showed, and showed to advantage.
The Cambridge Drama Centre is a small space, its roofbeams painted red above heavy dark rafters. A single steep bank of seating confronted the ATC's set, placing the audience face to face with the brushed-steel silhouettes of stylized pedimental sculptures, as if we were in a museum in Munich. Long silver spokes like guy wires converged on a cylindrical spotlight, the sun, anchoring it to the set.
The Pit is an equally small space, arranged for this production with 3/4 seating around a broad square of orchestra, the fourth wall absorbed into an impressive temple facade. Reliefs which looked like museum casts were set into the walls above, behind, and before the audience, a reminder that the Elgin Marbles are not far away from the Barbican, arranged, like Fotini Dimou's set, so that you have to look up at them. An altar, Mycenaean-style hammered gold foil over carved wooden reliefs, Gorgons prominent among them, reposed on a stepped dais before a not-quite doorway in the center of the temple. It was an impressive piece of archaeology, a literalization of Euripides' text, beautiful but not so overwhelming that the actors would get lost against it. (Most of the art they were interpreting was imagined over the audience's heads, rather than portrayed, so the set was not cluttered with sculptures.)
The beauty is appropriate: Delphi is a place which even in ruins is so numinous that it cannot fail to affect the visitor. Euripides makes good use of the painful contrast between the beauty of the god's sanctuary and the ugliness of his actions. But the manifest precision and the impression of historical accuracy were omens not of peacefulness shattered by violence but of the defiance of one of the most basic warnings to a would-be director of any classical play: 'Don't do archaeology.'
Not that either production engaged in an attempt to reconstruct the original performance, which would have been particularly disastrous in these intimate venues. But the RSC's production was marked by a naturalistic literalism which diminished the play's power, making it less, rather than more, universal, harder and not easier to relate to the play and the characters.
Anne Rabbitt's Hermes did handsprings in a seersucker suit for the ATC performance, a white-winged straw boater secured to 'his' head with an elastic band. Kenneth McLeish's script never flinched from the word 'rape,' and neither did Rabbitt's performance. This was Hermes the poor relation of the Olympians, born on the wrong side of the blanket, raised in the inner city, grown up to be an errand-boy and the patron of thieves. The remainder of the cast engaged in a balletic dumbshow which illustrated Hermes' narrative in slow motion. Hermes' penetrating assessment of his brother's character and actions taught the audience to distrust the appearance of serenity, the innocent certainty of Ion's belief in Apollo.
Nicholas Wright cast Ariyon Bakare, a beautiful black man with a dancer's control of his body, as both Hermes and Athena. As Hermes, he entered while the audience was still filing in and lounged against the altar, eating an apple. His costume was definitely not archaeological: athletic shorts and a tank top, both in silver spandex, and equally metallic high-topped wrestling shoes with fat padded silver wings on them. A piece of headgear halfway between the traveler's petasos and the warrior's helmet, also winged, reposed next to him, its silver rubbed over with black for a look of greater antiquity, and perhaps greater utility as well. Why such a helm should look as if it had suffered hard use remained a mystery. There was no apparent point to his early entrance, no visible reason for him to get up and begin addressing the audience. The speech itself was used to invoke the majesty of Olympus and Athens, and there was no reference to rape. Instead, Apollo and Creusa 'lay entwined', with no reference to violence. David Lan's script was saturated with alliteration, into which lines like 'you're dead meat' fell like lead.
The differences between McLeish's and Lan's English texts may lie behind the overall differences in interpretation between the two productions. McLeish's lines are short sentences, packing a lot of punch in their quick jabs, maintaining the play's tension and suspense. There are no softened corners, and ATC's actors exploited this starkness, using it to drive home emotion. Lan stretches his syntax and sense over long streams of words, sometimes inverting the natural order of English and resulting more in confusion than poetry. As if cued by the hypnotic rhythms of Lan's words, the entire production oozed sensuality from the moment the chorus disposed itself about the set with the languid abandon of sunbathers.
The chorus almost redeemed itself from its sleepy inertia the first time it spoke in unison, and later demonstrated motion, emotion, and downright bloodthirstiness, but the production never quite escaped the sexual haze. Diana Hardcastle, a literal scarlet woman in a blood-colored not-quite-chiton, was a bizarrely arch Creusa. Despite a few artistic threads of gray in her elaborately coiffed Titian hair, she seemed far too young to be the mother of a grown son. Creusa would, of course, be young, as she was barely nubile at the time of Apollo's assault. But would a woman who had first suffered the trauma of rape, then had to give up her child, and then come to know the bitter despair of barrenness in a world where men must have heirs have retained such girlish coquettishness? Her coy responses to Ion's questions seemed less the protective reflexes of a woman with a painful secret than the flirtatiousness of an irrepressibly promiscuous woman. Her enthusiastic response to Xuthus' almost indecently lascivious greeting seemed wildly inappropriate. Their relationship showed us neither the marriage of state which had first united them nor the solidarity of those who have been bound together by sorrow, only a sexual passion without regard for the sanctity of holy places. (The careful research seems to have missed out on the fact that sexual intercourse was regarded as a source of ritual pollution at Delphi.) Even her later embraces of her son seemed tainted by sexuality. And if Creusa flirted, Xuthus fondled. As one of the chorus members knelt to replace his shoes, he ran one long strand of her hair through his fingers. It was at this moment that Ion, baffled as to how Xuthus could have fathered him, demanded 'Have you had immoral relations?'
The audience laughed, of course. Much of the RSC's production was played for laughs. Ion contains some particularly absurd moments. Ion's confusion when Xuthus emerges from the temple and identifies the young man as his son is unmistakably humorous. But where the ATC dodged the homosexual overtones which an older man's embrace of a liminal youth could not have escaped in Athens, the RSC made them far too crudely obvious. The parodic element of that first recognition prevented any genuine emotional connection between father and son, and Ion's protests against Xuthus' wish to bring him back to Athens seemed suspicious and sophistic.
Jude Law had the perfect physicality for Ion. He was the perfect boy on the verge of manhood, with the kind of heartbreaking, not-quite, androgynous beauty which lends a tragic weight to any suffering. He played his part with poignant sincerity, but his scene with Xuthus forced him to deliver his lines in an uncharacteristic manner, as if the innocence he wished to cling to had already vanished. ATC's Gary Turner, less pretty and more boyish, emphasized his love for the life he has led at the temple, for serenity and simplicity and certainty. His confusion at his sudden change of fortunes, the encroachment of doubt into his previously unquestioning belief, reverberated in his acknowledgement of Xuthus' claim: 'God speaks: we must believe him.' And his vengeful anger at his mother's murder attempt, full of adolescent righteousness, was both more painful and more convincing than Law's hysterical shouting.
But it was Shelley King's Kreousa which made ATC's Ion so unmistakably a tragedy. Her face was young enough, her body attractive enough in its stiff bodice and cotton petticoats; you did not wonder what Apollo had wanted with her. But her hair was drawn severely back under a net, and her voice had a six-packs a day smoker's rasp well-shaped for hurling accusations like missiles at Apollo. Her regal carriage, her ferocity, her mercurial temper, her stark denunciation of the god in the pitiless glare of his sunlight--all were unflinchingly Greek. She belonged in the world of tragedy as Diana Hardcastle, for all that she gave a fine performance within the constraints of her script and director, did not. Hardcastle's anguish was too psychologically plausible, too quotidian even in its extremity. It was embarrassing to intrude on it. King's grief transfixed us in the echo of Kilissa's cry 'All she wanted was children!' And when her Kreousa and Turner's Ion at last recognized one another and embraced, the pain of all that had been irretrivably lost in their years of separation thrust itself on the consciousness. Their discovery of one another only intensified their own and the audience's awareness of what they had missed.
The Pythia, who effected this reunion and averted matricide, was not a success in either show. ATC's Kate Fenwick was too young for the part: the unsteadiness of her movements looked more like the twitches of uncontrollable muscle spasms than like the trembling of extreme old age. Eve Pearce, the RSC's choice for the role, was old enough for dignity and to be the woman Ion thought of as his mother, but she looked like an amusement park's fortune-teller in her black turban and caftan. Her affection for Ion, and his for her, were unconvincing, as were the tokens contained in the meticulously-crafted basket she brought out. Those were unconvincing because of their very precision. The contents of that basket matched Creusa's description too exactly--except for the Gorgon at the center of the blanket, manifestly painted rather than woven or embroidered and far too carefully rendered to be the work of an unskilled young girl. Like the rents in Creusa's dress when she raced in ahead of Ion's lynch mob, liberally smeared with mud, the tokens focused our attention on an evaluation of their authenticity and distracted us from the more important human interactions taking place on the stage.
Ion ends when Athena appears in answer to Ion's demand that Apollo give some account of his actions. Michael Roberts put away the leather trenchcoat he'd worn as ATC's Daddy Warbucks of a Ksouthos and played Athene as a divine snap queen in gold platform sandals and paisley aegis. His deep voice, tricked out with camp embellishments, boomed from behind a horror-movie hockey mask of a helmet with a crest of chrome spikes. Kreousa and Ion regarded Apollo's secondhand instructions for a happy ending with a mixture of disbelief and helplessness. The goddess' proclamation puts an end to their search for human truth and justice: the gods will do what they please, and there is no appeal. With bleak resignation Ion separated himself from Kreousa and marched forward to the imperialist destiny which shatters his newfound rapport with his mother.
'She left me,' Gary Turner explained afterwards in a discussion with the audience. 'I couldn't forget that.' In the course of its rehearsals, the cast had attempted to stage a family dinner back in Athens. 'It was awful,' they reported. 'No one could say anything but 'pass the salt.''
Where the ATC was clearly dissatisfied with the solution proposed by the dea ex machina, the RSC seemed ambivalent. Ariyon Bakare gave us an Athena meticulously modeled on cult statues from the Parthenon, the details of the aegis and triple-crested helm again a distraction from the spoken lines. The choice of casting for this role was puzzling. A touring company's size, like its set, is limited by the logistics of traveling. ATC is a company of six: even with a pared-down (though brilliantly characterized) chorus, roles had to be doubled. Nevertheless, Michael Roberts was clearly cast as Athene in order to make a point. The RSC is safely ensconced in The Pit for a long run and obviously not suffering from any particular budgetary constraints, so why Bakare as Athena? Surely not for authenticity's sake. True the same actor would originally have taken on both Hermes and Athena--but also Xuthus and the Pythia. Was there a deliberate reference to Martin Bernal's controversial Black Athena--and if so, was it tongue-in-cheek? Hardcastle's Creusa, Law's Ion, and the chorus accepted the goddess' explanations and reassurances with apparent but unconvincing sincerity. The chorus' final, banal summation of the deserts of good and evil had a brainwashed woodenness to it, as if the actors were uncomfortable with the director's decision--or indecision--about how to play the ending. Despite its talented cast, Nicholas Wright's production failed either to be tragedy or to assert its status as a new dramatic form.
(Sallie Goetsch would like to thank Niall Slater for contributing his comments on and impressions of both productions.)