THEATRE / Gods are only human: Ion - The Pit, Barbican

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Athene, the dea ex machina, is performed by a strapping black actor in drag in Nicholas Wright's rare revival of Ion, Euripides' slyly subversive and charming tragicomedy from 414BC. Not coarsened by overplaying, this dignity- puncturing device is a nicely calculated touch, for in Ion, the gods are by no means exempt from criticism.

'Apollo sent me,' says Athene, brazening out the fact that she's engaged in a flagrant cover-up. 'He thought it best not to come himself in case it caused an angry scene.' It's a bit late in the day for him to pose as considerate, though, given that it's precisely his moral deviousness that has caused the various scenes of tragicomic anger and confusion in the play thus far.

The young hero, Ion, a foundling engaged to keep the Temple of Apollo tidy, is in fact, though unwittingly, the god's son, the discarded fruit of his date-rape of Creusa, now the queen of Athens. The past is revived with painful crookedness when this woman comes to the temple with her husband, Xuthus, seeking to know from the oracle if their barren marriage will be blessed with issue. Like someone on the run from a paternity suit or the Child Support Agency, Apollo seizes this situation as a neat opportunity to pass Ion off as a bastard of Xuthus. Within the tricksy, cynical context of this plot, though, the distorted reunitings bring some of the characters (Ion, Creusa) to a straightened sense of themselves and of the gods.

If the chorus of female tourists at times brought to mind members of a women's keep-fit club who had been hitting the sherry bottle, most features of the directing and of David Lan's translation adroitly captured the subtle mixed mood of the piece which manages to be both a comically artful expose and an enchanting romance at the same time.

Diana Hardcastle is excellent as Creusa, the amused worldliness of the queen giving way to teeth-gritted, vengeful anguish when the youth who has stirred her maternal instinct is alleged to be her husband's bastard. Prissily shooing off the birds who keep messing up his spick-and-span temple with their droppings, Jude Law's superb Ion memorably communicates the boyish righteousness and slightly fusspot navety of a youth who has, in a sense, failed to develop because he's been sheltered from the facts of his identity. The play is about his growing up and his realisation that if human truth is to exist, it cannot be modelled on the 'truthfulness' of the gods.

Unstaged for a century, the play is soon to get a second airing from ATC. A case of too many Ions in the fire? Not to judge from this persuasive revival.