Our Ajax

An epic drama of heroism, love and homeland, Sophocles’s Ajax is brought urgently to life in this thrilling new play by Olivier Award-winner Timberlake Wertenbaker. Torn between army politics and the love of his soldiers on the front line of war, the legendary leader begins to spiral out of control.

Developed from interviews with current and former servicemen and women, this incisive and powerful new work comes to Southwark Playhouse directly following the smash hit West End revival of Wertenbaker’s multi-award-winning modern classic Our Country’s Good.

Directed by David Mercatali


**** Guardian

Timberlake Wertenbaker has been inspired by Sophocles’s Ajax to write a play about the stresses of modern warfare. The result, as always with this writer, is sharp, witty and intelligent, but Wertenbaker’s adherence to much of the form and content of the Sophoclean original inevitably produces occasional anachronistic oddities.

In Sophocles’s version, the Greek warrior goes berserk when the armour of the dead Achilles is awarded to his deadly rival, Odysseus. In Wertenbaker’s version, Ajax is a modern military hero who loses his mind in a desert training exercise when passed over for promotion. But although, as in Sophocles, his frenzy takes the form of slaughtering cattle, this is only the cue for an examination of the crackups that are a feature of contemporary war. This Ajax is brought down by a combination of factors: parental expectations, length of service, individual hubris and, above all, what Athena calls “a barrage of blood-soaked memories”.

Athena is played with beautifully svelte omniscience by Gemma Chan, but a goddess of war seems an odd presence in today’s world. Practical questions also arise, such as whether there would be any debate in a modern war zone about the burial of a maddened hero. But the play still offers a compelling picture of the damage war inflicts on the individual psyche, and of the insane demands it places on the leaders as well as the led.

David Mercatali’s production, played in a sandy pit with the audience on three sides, captures the sense of crisis, partly through a towering performance by Joe Dixon as Ajax, who suggests a mind fractured by past actions yet bids a touching farewell, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Antony, to his old soldiers. Frances Ashman as Ajax’s medic wife and Adam Riches as an ultimately compassionate Odysseus lend good support. Even though I’d someday like to see the Sophoclean source, this play enlarges our understanding of the way war drives so many to suicide or mental breakdown.

Venue

Southwark Playhouse

Cast

Joe Dixon
Gemma Chan
William Postlethwaite
Adam Riches
Franc Ashman
John Schwab
Fiona Skinner
James Kermack
Jordan Mifsud