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Our Ajax at the Southwark Playhouse

| Theatre, Uncategorized | 11/11/2013

Our Ajax
Ajax (Joe Dixon). Photo by Camilla Greenwell.

Our Ajax, which premiers at the Southwark Playhouse this month,  is a new play by award winning playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker (of Our Country’s Good fame). Our Ajax is a retelling (of sorts) of Sophocles’s play Ajax. I say a retelling ‘of sorts’ because it borrows from the original quite freely. It is a play about war, honour, death and the relationships between gods and mortals.

Whilst the influence of the earlier Ajax is recognisable in Wertenbaker’s play, it is still a thoroughly modern play which reflects modern times. Not in the least through the use of technology – iPhones are used as props for recording family videos on stage, soldiers communicate via text message and the prospect of broadband internet is bandied about with much excitement. The setting is Afghanistan instead of Ancient Greece and the war is the Afghanistan war instead of the Trojan War but the same ideas still hold true. The play was devised with service personnel and mental health groups studying PTSD in conflict zones. This background is obvious in the characterisation of Ajax – he is a legendary soldier and hero spiraling out of control and slowly descending into paranoia-fuelled madness with devastating results. Put it this way, his cries go straight through you. I shivered more than once, I have to admit.

Occasionally the blending of ancient and modern gets so fuzzy it becomes almost confusing and definitely becomes disconcerting. I felt this particularly when the group of soldiers play a recent chart topper through a phone and proceed to drink, dance and smoke questionable substances. This, in conjunction with the lyrical verse of the speeches and the overshadowing presence of the goddess Athena, did throw me a little momentarily. Once my brain had caught up with what I was seeing however, I found this particular scene to be wryly amusing and a welcome break in the darkness of the play.

The tone of the play is set the moment the first actor walks on stage. Joe Dixon as Ajax walks/stumbles on to the stage, growling animalistically and covered from head to toe in blood and gore. From the first minute you just know this is not going to be a light hearted play (although it does have its moments). The actions that follows demonstrates to the audience that all is not quite well in Ajax’s mind. He is in the thrall of a powerful delusion and shouts and throws himself around the stage with vigour. Dixon’s performance truly is amazing. He slips between lucidity and delusion so effortlessly it is hard to keep up with where Ajax’s head is at any given moment. That is part of the power of the play as a whole – we are never quite sure what the characters are going to do next or how far their trauma stress will take them.

Although the focus is mostly on Ajax and his men, there is a parallel story involving the goddess Athena, played by Gemma Chan, and Odysseus, played by Adam Riches. The two stories weave in an out, overlapping and shedding light on the actions of the other.

I found the staging to be particularly effective. The theatre was organised with the audience sitting on three sides of the stage, very close to the action, making it a disconcertingly intimate performance. Even more so as the sand (this is Afghanistan) that covered the floor inevitably snuck up to all levels of seating. To make this affect even more obvious, the actors wandered through the audience to have conversations or making their way through as if on patrol with guns held up and full uniform. These elements of staging combined with Ajax’s lack of control and mental confusion result in a thoroughly unsettling feeling. Unsettling, yes, but I think that is the point and it is a point made so well.

I can’t fault this play – it made me laugh, made me jump and made me feel slightly uncomfortable (what good play doesn’t?). The groups of soldiers provided a welcome relief at times and a very human element. One solider fed up of sand and war wants nothing more than a ‘Magners cider with ice‘ and after such a production, I think I’ll join him.

Our Ajax is at the Southwark Playhouse until 30th November. For more information and tickets go to www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.

Athena (Gemma Chan). Photo by Camilla Greenwell.

Athena (Gemma Chan). Photo by Camilla Greenwell.

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