“It’s all about honour, isn’t it?”
Timberlake Wertenbaker freely borrows from Sophocles’ Ajax, drawing on the Greek tragedy of the Trojan War to talk about madness and glory in modern conflicts. The performance space is liberally strewn with sand, and trampled with big boots. The audience surround a thrust stage, and at the back of the space, there is the canvassed suggestion of tents. Ajax enters in the lowest depths madness after his superiors have promoted Odysseus before him, and he has set out to murder them at night. Athena tricks him into thinking that a herd of animals, sheep and cows, are his targets, and he butchers them instead.
Bloodied, full of adrenaline, and half-aware that something has gone very wrong, Joe Dixon is terrifying as Ajax, punching and suffocating a sheep’s head, before waterboarding it with his canteen. He talks to God on the radio about his prisoners. He is the picture of battle-induced psychosis. But after he has retreated into his tent, it is his soldiers, played by James Kermack, Jordan Mifsud and Fiona Skinner who give a more apposite insight into the mind of modern combatants.
This chorus of sorts becomes the mouthpiece for Wertenbaker’s conversations with many servicemen and charities – the soldiers tell us of their dreams and their persistent flashbacks, their life on the borderline of PTSD. They love brave, instinctive, smart Ajax – ‘our Ajax’, they call him. They play dance music on their iPhones, and know how to hide their beer and a joint from their superior in a brief moment. They are a hint to a different kind of play, about divided loyalties, about the kinds of people that thrive in combat and those who are scarred in more ways than one. But Our Ajax doesn’t allow enough room for their experiences to carry emotional weight.
More space is given to Ajax’s relationship with his lover Tecmessa, as they try to find some way to cover up Ajax’s night of butchery. The sadness at a loved one brought low serves as emotional centre to the play. However, in the Sophocles Tecmessa is a concubine who has given birth to Ajax’s child. Here she is a field medic, who likewise has had a child with Ajax, which defies any kind of belief in the modern military setting of the play, especially when the son himself is brought onstage in T-shirt and three-quarter length shorts to confront mad Ajax, who thrusts an SA-80 into the gangly teenager’s hands and tells him to oil it and keep it clean.
The child, played by Douglas Wood, who makes the best of nonsensical part, is one of a series of anachronisms – ‘Let’s go into the tent, before I end up on YouTube’ – that suspend us somewhere between the current conflicts in the Middle East and the Trojan War, to no real purpose. The appearance of Athena, played beguiling and puckish by Gemma Chan, is the most frustrating of these hang-overs from the original text – a goddess who holds sway over the course of a battle? Who appears to soldiers, and helps those who honour her, and drives mad or allows to die those who scorn her assistance? I don’t believe such anthropomorphism of war is a viable or desirable way to discuss the cruel realities which the play so brutally puts before the audience: the horror of a sniper bullet sending a jawbone flying at close range or the splatter of limbs after the explosion of an IED. Yes, modern-day soldiers do have a conception of honour, glory and duty, but to approach this within a theatrical framework which has honour, glory and duty in its genetic makeup actually trivialises the observation.
The plot implausibly runs its course to the Sophoclean letter, and the production never succeeds in coalescing the text’s dual loyalties. The pace throughout is desperately slow, as the actors fight through poetic lines which read well on the page but sound like zealous sixth-form translation when performed. It feels so distant from the rich text of Wertenbaker’s stand out Greek-inspired The Love of The Nightingale. The attention to detail in the design from James Turner helps, with offal as superbly realistic as the standard issue rifles, but rash lighting decisions – let’s bathe Athena in purplish light, because she’s like, a goddess – betray the play’s want of firm grounding.
Wertenbaker has said in her Exeunt interview and in her introduction to the playtext, that she left her anti-war belief at the door when approaching this play. In the light of the news on the morning before the press night performance that a British soldier had so poetically exclaimed ‘Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt’ before murdering an injured Afghan soldier, the playwright’s self-distancing seems regrettable. While Wertenbaker’s research into the frank experiences of soldiers is valuable, every decision which stays true to the Greek text feels like it holds back a play that is really needed, which argues with nuance and polemic about modern warfare and its effect on the people who choose and are chosen to fight it.