Season 08-09 Season

Full Interview with Ethan McSweeny

AKIVA FOX: When you directed The Persians for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2006, you talked a lot about how you hated the way Greek drama was usually produced. So here you are, with this very unusual and atypical Greek drama in Ion, and I was wondering if you could start out by talking about what makes it unusual, and what you like about it.

ETHAN McSWEENY: When Michael put the play in front of me (and it was Michael’s idea), I had a look at it, and I thought, “Oh dear, I can’t possibly do this. I’ve just done The Persians three years ago in DC and I was very proud of that production. Maybe that was all the ideas I had about Greek drama, and that was all I could offer the canon.” So, I read it very trepidatiously and, in fact, I read the play looking for reasons why I shouldn’t do it. And the more I looked for reasons not to do it, the more I realized that I was secretly coming up with ways that I could do it. And now I have fallen completely in love with this play. It’s an interesting counterpoint to The Persians, which is one of the oldest, Greekest of Greek dramas. This one is by Euripides and it is a virtually unknown Greek play. Why this is, I have no idea, except for the fact that I think it breaks a lot of the traditional models. When we think of Greek comedy, we tend to think of Aristophanes’ The Frogs, and people with big phalli on, or something like that, right? When we think of Greek tragedy, we think of Electra and Medea. This is a Greek comedy-drama, and it is by turns funny, touching, dramatic, and it’s a Greek play with a happy ending, which alone makes it really exceptional within the pantheon of Greek plays. I think Euripides was really busting the form; there’s a reason why he’s the father of modern drama.

It has some of the tropes of the Greek set pieces: there’s going to be a servant who arrives from offstage and tells you what’s happened. But there are also lots of scenes in which two characters encounter each other, and by virtue of their exchange with each other on the stage, they change. Their relationship changes, their sense of one another changes, their sense of their place in the world changes. So dramatic action is really happening on the stage, which is just incredible. The adaptation by David Lan, which is the one that we’ll be using, is similarly insightful. It reminds me a tremendous amount of the kind of work that the playwright Ellen McLaughlin and I did on The Persians. It is really respectful of the text, but also able to express its shifting dramatic gears, its shifting idioms, which I think is important. I want to do it differently than The Persians, obviously, so we won’t be using twenty-five tons of red sand this time around. It’s a totally different play, so I’m treating it totally differently. I think I am bringing one lesson forward, which is that you can’t make just one choice of dramatic style, you have to be allowed to shift with the play, so it’s not locked into “this is a comedy, this is a tragedy.” It is a fluid thing, and we will allow the play to evolve theatrically, as it does in the text.

AF: I know one of your concerns in working on The Persians was the use of the chorus. You found some clever ways out of the usual choral speaking – you gave them identities and you broke up the language between them. How are you interested in using them in this play?

EM: In this production, the chorus is going to be a bunch of pushy contemporary American tourists, visiting Delphi. It was an inescapable conclusion from their first entrance for me, and I think that what I’m figuring out for myself about Greek drama is that the chorus is supposed to be the onstage surrogate for the audience. They’re there to ask the questions that we have, they’re there to represent us in the story, and so I thought, “what if we make them us on a trip to Delphi?” You know, people from the modern world. And then I thought, “is it possible that Ion, in his ancient world, could coexist with this modern chorus?” I thought it was, because at a lot of historical and religious centers, you have either practitioners of a religion dressed up in their traditional garb, or you have historical re-enactors, like there are at every historical site in Europe. I thought maybe these things could legitimately coexist within the same visual field, and that might be interesting. So that’s how we’re going to treat the chorus in this play. It’s also quite an interesting thing to have a chorus of only five women; the demands on each actor are pretty extraordinary, because they not only have to be able to handle this language, but we’re going to have them do some singing as well, so we’ve been working hard to get a mix of voices and vocal styles that our composer Michael Roth is going to work with. And as I said, there is going to be a very theatrical component to the production. The setting is imagined right now as a version of the temple ruins inspired by Delphi, and into it I expect we’ll bring some live music, some puppetry, some aerial effects, and this contemporary American chorus.

AF: How much do you feel you do have to bridge the ancient and the modern in Ion? It’s something the translation does a certain amount anyway, just in the word choice, but does a play like this, which feels very modern, need to hold the audience’s hand at all to get over that gap?

EM: I don’t know if it’s holding their hand or not, because I think there is a need to bridge the ancient and the modern gap, but I think I’m enjoying treating the play from my own modernity, and not as some distant story from another time. So I don’t think it simplifies the play to provide some contemporary connections. It’s not about modernizing it, it’s about letting it be as contemporary for this audience as it was for Euripides’ audience. And that’s where the idea of the Chorus comes out; the original audience saw a group of people they could identify with, who are on a little holiday to Delphi. And so how do we interpret that information in such a way that it makes it as present for a contemporary audience as it might have been for an ancient audience?

AF: Because on the most basic level it is a very timeless theme. There’s no way around that, nor should there be.

EM: This is the story of Ion, a young man who’s reaching maturity, who was dropped off in a basket at the temple as a baby, and who is now starting to chafe a little bit at the dislocation of not knowing who he is. And into his world come the king and queen of Athens, who are themselves a childless couple. They too are searching for family, and so those things come together. The other thing that’s really interesting in this play for me – here’s where we have a big departure from The Persians – is that this is a play that has the gods in it. Hermes comes down at the very beginning and gives us some of the background and talks to us about what’s going to happen and what’s happening, and Athena comes down at the end in very classic deus-ex-machina fashion. And when I say comes down, I think I mean that literally..

But there’s something going on in Ion, too, which is that his belief system is being challenged. His absolute conviction that the gods only do good, that they are irreproachable, those things are starting to give way to a much more grown-up, much more complicated world view that doesn’t see things in absolute terms of black and white. So Euripides manages something very clever, because he’s also talking about the political education of the man who will go on to found Ionia, and who is going to be a revered leader throughout history and whose progressive policies eventually result in the Athenian experiment in democracy. And I think that that’s an aspect of the play that’s not only timeless and will be of interest to politically attuned audiences in Washington, but, like any of these good plays that are about leaders and founders, also has something to do with thinking about “What makes a good leader?”

AF: Rightly or wrongly, this is a play that almost no one knows, even if they know Greek drama well. And you’ve actually done a lot of new play directing and work on world premieres. How much is this almost a world premiere for you? What does it share in common with that kind of work?

EM: It definitely feels that way in terms of the audience because there isn’t a sense of “Oh yes, the last Ion I saw was like that too.” In my own straw poll, I have yet to find a single person, including many veteran theatre practitioners, who know anything about it. So what a privilege for the audience to get to see this play as though for the first time. My encouragement to the audience is: please don’t read the play before you come, and please do read it after you’ve seen it. Because you’re going to get to watch a significant play by a master playwright, and you will not know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know if it’s freeing or not, but there’s a sort of no-net experience about doing a world premiere where you realize that the choices you’re making are the first time any of these dramatic scenarios have been approached and solved and so forth. To my knowledge, Ion was done very successfully in London, so there is a possibility that some of the audience may have seen it there, but I there isn’t a long production history. I don’t feel the need to compete with or address past productions. When you do celebrated plays by Shakespeare, you are inevitably going to have to draw on your own experience of those plays, and in some way position your play in relationship to what you know will be your audience’s former experience of those plays too.

AF: As an old Shakespeare Theatre Company hand, you know that one of Michael’s projects is reviving plays that should be better known than they are. You served as assistant director for a few such plays, like Mourning Becomes Electra and Volpone. How do you think that project matches this play? What was the experience of working on those, in terms of figuring out how to bring them to an audience that didn’t know them but knew that they were “classics”?

EM: I think we treated those plays with the same respect we treat all the other plays that we do, so its mere inclusion is part of saying this should be part of the overall canon. The Shakespeare Theatre’s destiny is to continue to expand what the word “classical” means into new corners of the dramatic canon, while bringing the skill set and the discipline that’s required to do the great works of Shakespeare.

AF: Do you think audiences watch plays like that differently than they watch something they’ve seen a thousand times?

EM: They certainly can get on the edge of their seats. Ion, like The Persians, will be, by Shakespeare Theatre Company standards, brief (it’s a single act, not two or three). It is large in scope and in scale; these Greek plays were much like contemporary musicals, in that they were filled with all sorts of different things going on, not like a single-set living room play. So I think that the key is trying to embrace all the different theatrical genres that occur within a Greek play, and the possibilities that are latent within it.

AF: Audiences might associate this play with one of those late Shakespeare romances, something like The Winter’s Tale or Pericles, where you go all over the world, but it’s essentially the story of a parent and a child being reunited.

EM: It’s very much an intimate family story, so I think The Winter’s Tale is a very apt comparison. You know, sometimes there’s kind of a new classicism arising about how we do our Shakespeare, and we tend to now have an idea of what we think he was doing, and so we do it that way. The Winter’s Tale is a crazy play! I mean, it’s a melting pot. Shakespeare’s skill was his ability to make those things all feel of a piece, that even though they were crazy and range all over the place, they belong together. And I think Euripides has a lot of that too,  in that he’s able to meld the set pieces that his audience expected a play to have and still push the form in new directions.



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