Our Ajax*** (Southwark Playhouse, 8 November 2013)

Posted: November 9, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Inspired by Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, written in the 5th Century BC, and developed using interviews with armed forces personnel, Timberlake Wertenbaker sets her new play amongst British forces fighting in a modern day Asian desert war zone. Lt Col Ajax has been passed over for promotion to Brigadier in favour of his hated rival Odysseus and, engulfed by rage, he goes out into the night to slaughter sheep, goats, dogs and a cow, imagining each one to be Odysseus. He makes his first entrance drenched in blood, dragging a mutilated carcass in his wake. Ajax is a legendary hero and a charismatic leader of his unit who commands unquestioning loyalty, but, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, he is spiralling out of control, turning into a renegade. As played by Joe Dixon, he is a giant figure, exuding authority that is, at the same time, visceral and calculated. Nothing could break him except injustice. Ajax’s actions and his motives pose questions of morality and legality that underlie news headlines even as this play is being performed. He is war weary to the point that “dust seeps into the mind, blood spatters the retina” and he is now engaged in a war in which objectives are ill-defined, enemies cannot be clearly identified and chains of command are muddled. The soldiers under him recognise his mental illness, but acknowledge that their army is incapable of responding to it. This is strong stuff, played out in the central part of the play, with great intensity. However, Wertenbaker’s decision to retain the characters’ Greek names impairs authenticity and appearances by the Goddess Athena (Gemma Chan) are diversions that serve only to stall the drama. The playwright’s point is that warfare is timeless and continuous – Troy, Flanders, Basra, Helmand, etc – but this is stated in the text and it did not need to be further emphasised. This play and the anti-war messages contained in it could have been much more potent if she had simply taken and updated just the core story and severed all other links to Sophocles’ original play. Amongst the supporting players, Frances Ashman is particularly affecting as Tecmessa, a lower ranking soldier and mother of Ajax’s illegitimate son. Adam Riches, better known as a stand-up comedian, plays Odysseus, a character that, as written, is rather dull. Riches does not make him more interesting or offer any insight into the qualities that made the army hierarchy prefer him to Ajax. For the most part, the writing is sharp and engrossing. In typical Wertenbaker style, it is also infused with mischievous humour. Ajax retreats to his tent not to sleep but to avoid being filmed for You Tube. A preening American General (John Schwab) orders that the man who killed the goats be handed over to the men with goatees and, taking pride in his pun, proclaims “God, I’m so powerful and so smart”. David Mercatali’s direction ensures a brisk pace and draws the audience, seated on 3 sides of a sand pit, into the heart of a drama that should provoke much thought and discussion. Maybe the overall impact of the production feels less than the sum of its strongest parts, but, in its best moments, it lands some powerful punches.

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