Thursday, 14 November 2013

Theatre review: Our Ajax

A figure of pure brute force, Ajax isn't one of the best-loved heroes of the Trojan War, better known nowadays for his bathroom scouring abilities. Timberlake Wertenbaker admits in her introduction to the playtext that Sophocles' play about him was hard for her to get to grips with. So her new version Our Ajax takes a different tack to most of her classical translations, more explicitly superimposing a modern story of Afghanistan over the one set in Troy - with only partial success. We first meet Ajax (Joe Dixon) dragging bloody corpses across the stage: When his nemesis Odysseus (Adam Riches) was promoted above him, Ajax snapped and murdered him and all his soldiers. Or so he thinks: In fact the goddess Athena (Gemma Chan) cast a confusion spell over him to protect Odysseus, and he actually slaughtered the allied army's goats and dogs.

Once the scales fall from Ajax's eyes and he sees what's happened, he finally cracks completely and this opens the way for Wertenbaker's conceit for the play, that this is now explicitly a story about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Dixon throws everything (including spit and snot - patrons in the first two rows may get wet) into a powerful performance that ranges from roaring fury and frustration to a subtler but chilling acceptance of his situation, giving a real three-dimensional quality to Ajax's mental breakdown. Another big success is in the use of the chorus of soldiers. Many Greek tragedies are named after their chorus and Wertenbaker sort of does the same thing by re-titling this Our Ajax: It's not just his personal tragedy but that of the men and women (Jordan Mifsúd, James Kermack, Fiona Skinner, with Oliver Devoti as Chorus Leader/Sergeant Major) for whom he was their leader and the loss of his mind devastates them as well.

Frances Ashman is moving as Ajax's wife Tecmessa, and the casting of general Menelaos (John Schwab) as an American imposing his leadership on the British troops makes for an intriguing final showdown - and considering Wertenbaker's script comes partly from interviews with serving soldiers, an interesting insight into the relationship between allied forces. After being spoken of and awaited for what seems longer than Godot, Ajax's brother Teucer (William Postlethwaite) casts a strange kind of figure when he finally arrives, his self-involved response to the tragedy striking an out-of-place note (characters in Greek tragedy sometimes assume an audience familiarity that's lost nowadays, and stripped even further by this kind of resetting of the action) but he makes a suitably upper-class officer type for the face-off with the Yanks.

Where the adaptation stumbles though is in keeping the Olympian religion of the original, Athena seeming totally out of place as a controlling figure in this modern context. I felt like her conversations with Odysseus could have been cut altogether, or the adaptation taken that little bit further to turn her into a manifestation of something inside Ajax rather than outside him. Her speech about how his lack of respect for the gods caused his downfall is particularly incongruous - and yet could it have been turned into something about how the lack of a spiritual element put this strain on his mind? So there's frustrations in how close Our Ajax comes to reinventing Greek tragedy without quite shaking off the original's limitations enough. But David Mercatali's production almost makes you overlook them in its intense power, and a desert setting in the Large space1 that still manages an element of claustrophobia.

Our Ajax by Timberlake Wertenbaker, based on Ajax by Sophocles, is booking until the 30th of November at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

1now that they've started playing with the configuration we get another new one from designer James Turner - a deep, sand-covered thrust, perhaps to make RSC Associate Dixon feel at home.

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