“Now I know war makes men lose all sense of themselves”
Like Caroline Bird last year for the Gate, Timberlake Wertenbaker has looked to tales of Ancient Greece to create a new play that speaks of the unique trials of modern warfare and the demands it places on soldiers from “Troy, Flanders, Basra, Helmand” and beyond. Our Ajax draws on Sophocles’ Ajax as well as dialogues with people serving in the armed forces right now, but as with Bird’s The Trojan Women, there are difficulties in combining the Hellenic elements – not least the presence of divine power – with the all-too-real scenario of modern-day desert combat.
In a world where the acronym PTSD is chillingly familiar, this Ajax is a decorated Lieutenant Colonel who flips over the edge when he is passed over for a promotion to Brigadier which goes to rival Odysseus instead. But though his devoted battalion recognise what is happening, there are no structures in this version of the military to deal with such crises and so as Wertenbaker unpicks the varied reasons for Ajax’s mental collapse, there’s an inexorable slide towards tragedy that spans from the personal to the institutional.
Joe Dixon swaggers magnificently as Ajax, blood-soaked from the beginning as he acts out by slaughtering cattle, and highly theatrical in conception, perfect for delivering the playwright’s vivid prose. But there is a constant tension as the modern world intrudes on the classical story – sometimes humour gets us through, Ajax retires to his tent avoid his antics being captured on YouTube and portents of doom are delivered by text message but against this, Gemma Chan’s excellently ethereal Athena remains a haunting presence hard to reconcile.
The existence of gods here never really settles into the wider world of the play and even with Athena’s ongoing tête-à-tête with Odysseus, it rarely feels essential. Adam Riches makes for a curiously bloodless Odysseus, convincing neither as battle-hardened hero nor career soldier and so somewhat undermining the decision to advance him at the expense of Ajax. And director David Mercatali mis-steps late on when he explicitly tries to evoke the fear of snipers for a brief sequence and then forgets it entirely for the rest of the play – Our Ajax is stronger when it is confronting the enemy within.
This is a powerful and poetic play, and even its anachronistic clashes lend a teasing complexity rather than an out-and-out jarring wrongness. With sterling support from the likes of Frances Ashman as Tecmessa, the compassionate mother of Ajax’s illegitimate child, William Postlethwaite as an upright Teucer and James Kermack, Jordan Mifsud and Fiona Skinner as a trio of twerking squaddies, it’s an intriguing piece of theatre that speaks strongly of what we ask of those who serve.