To the classical Greeks, "comedy" simply meant any play which ended more or less harmoniously – without any high-born corpses or divine condemnations to speak of. Actual humour didn't come into it. To stage such drama in the present day is to walk a perilous line between the nature of the original material and current expectations of the genre.
The two first-ever professional English language productions of Euripides' play open this month. In a fortnight, the Actors Touring Company stages Kenneth McLeish's translation in Cardiff prior to a national tour, but first out of the traps is the director-translator partnership of Nicholas Wright and David Lan for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Euripides' world view was far from clear-cut: to him, morality shifted with changing circumstances and the gods had their own agenda, to which men and women were as flies to wanton boys. One cannot help thinking that Wright and Lan's version of Ion would perversely appeal to the old boy, founded as it is on the notion that momentous events – a liaison between the god Apollo and a mortal woman, leading to the foundation of virtually the entire Greek race – can be recounted in the trite vocabulary of suburban sitcom.
Jude Law is cleverly cast as the temple servant of Apollo whose reunion with his mother forms the narrative core of the play. This energetic young man is not the stuff of legend: one minute he may be musing profoundly, "If the gods lie, how can we ever know the truth?", but the next – as a supplicant to Apollo's oracle has just been misinformed that Ion is his son – he is sending off over-enthusiastic and apparently suspect attentions with: "You wouldn't believe how often I have to put up with this... especially from foreigners". As Ion gropes towards the truth of his parentage like a less fraught Oedipus, Law conveys the confusion and extremity of emotion without lapsing into classical angst. He is supported in this tonal no-man's-land by Peter Guinness as his stepfather Xuthus, an affable cove but not what you would call blessed with diplomacy.
The women on stage are more unambiguously earnest, but sometimes seem a little too far gone. When Creusa (Diana Hardcastle) plots the murder of Ion before discovering that he is her own child, Wright and Lan fail to integrate the scene's cut-price Medea-isms with the overall dramatic curve of the play. Also awkward is the presentation of speeches by the seven-strong chorus of Creusa's maidservants; after a promising beginning as a kind of Women's Institute tour party, they fall into a habit of what can best be described as synchronised writhing. Greek choruses are always a devil to stage in modern productions; suffice it to say that this particular option is less than triumphant.
However, the dominant note of the production remains its determined anti-nobility. The gods and their doings are held up not to ridicule but to chuckles of banal recognition, and Euripides' lines are rendered in a style not unlike a kind of ancient Athenian Galton & Simpson.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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