Ion

Euripides, translated by Mike Poulton
Mercury Theatre Production
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
(2004)

Publicity image for Ion

The big question for any translator, and director, of ancient Greek drama is whether to attempt a reconstruction of the original, with a result that is possibly archaic or austere; to risk the jarring anachronisms of being wholeheartedly modern; or to navigate the precarious channel between the two. Translator Mike Poulton and director David Hunt have both steered an intelligent course in this vivid and affecting production of Euripides' play about the meeting of a childless queen and an orphan temple boy at Apollo's oracle in Delphi.

Michael Vale's set works wonderfully as a practical and symbolic variation on the ancient theatron. The sand-filled circular acting area is both an ancient orchestra and a modern circus ring with its ever-changing pattern of footprints. To its left, a forest of ladders, their tops out of view, indicates the ceaseless interaction between heaven and earth, and behind are the gongs, drums and woodwind that accompany the action.

Another production choice is whether to follow the ancient convention and use masks. Here, the faces of Athena and Hermes are painted white, which effectively sets them apart from the unmasked mortals. In the case of Hermes, played with Puck-like charm by Ignatius Anthony, it is the face of a clown as well as of a god - albeit a lesser one, as he cheekily reminds us.

To modern taste the Greek drama can seem rather static, with all the action taking place offstage and a limited interaction between the characters. The words are vitally important, therefore, and Mike Poulton's translation uses lively contemporary idiom in the exchanges between characters but also some impassioned lyrical soliloquies. He allows us to make connections between the ancient and modern worlds without letting us feel for a moment any cosy familiarity with the scene before us. This goes for the production, too, which uses music, song and movement to create an intense feeling of ritual, helped enormously by the hypnotic sounds of composer Ansuman Biswas' accompanying ensemble. The experience this gives is of a very different order of drama from our own, but without the intrusion of a reconstructive agenda.

The whole production is, of course, an ensemble piece, and all the players are excellent: the orphaned Ion (David Nicolle) suggests a genuine innocence and religious devotion, and the childless Creusa is performed with gentle dignity by Katy Stephens, even when she is railing against the god in the very precincts of his temple. Like Euripides' Medea, she is a woman who is not afraid to challenge the foundations of culture and belief.

The pace and atmosphere of the first half is intense enough for an interval to feel inappropriate; but the mood is soon restored by the intense focus on stage as the apparent tragedy reaches its satisfying resolution. Apollo, the absent centre of this drama, closes the play with a striking speech directly to the audience here and now, appearing as a cascading stream of sand. This image of mortality and passing time is an effective ending to a riveting and thrilling piece of drama.

"Ion" runs until 26th June

Reviewer: Jill Sharp