Part of the Madness Season at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, Ajax sets Sophocles’ 450BC drama at the time of the First World War, shifting the focus from the horrors of war to the psychological consequences it has for those who take part.
Sophocles presents the aftermath of the last episode in the life of the great Greek warrior. Having lost a battle with Odysseus and forced to give up the armour of Achilles, Ajax swears revenge against the Greek leaders who he feels have betrayed him. Before he can act however he is put under a spell by the goddess Athena. Rather than murdering the generals – Agamemmon and Meneleus as well as Odysseus – he slaughters a herd of livestock. When he comes to his senses afterward, covered in blood, he cannot bear the weight of his shame and decides to end his life. The play examines his motivation and the effect this decision will have on his wife, fellow Greeks and personal legacy.
In this version, translated by Robert Cannon and directed by Jack Shepherd, the action takes place in a hospital tent: the goddess Athena is played by an actress in First World War nurses’ uniform; the chorus are a raggedy band of horribly wounded soldiers; and Odysseus displays the disabling shakes of a man destroyed by shell shock.
Nicky Bunch’s design (both set and costumes) is assured. This, combined with some effective lighting by Paul Green, makes for an atmospheric setup. There is a great deal of commitment too among the cast. Iarla McGowan’s Ajax shows effectively the toll war takes on the individual psyche; he blusters between rage, shame and despair, incapable of controlling his outbursts and frightening all who he engages with. Lucia McAnespie’s portrayal of Ajax’s wife Techmessa is subtly observed; she is aware of her husband’s fragile state, but also of the strength of his ego and must walk a tightrope between the two. She succeeds admirably and the moments McGowan and McAnespie share are among the best in the show.
There are other competent performances but this production never really engages with the material. The decision to supplant the action to the First World War is an understandable one, but other than a few moments of agonised deathbed writhing from the supporting cast, Shepherd doesn’t make any attempt to relate Sophocles’s text to his chosen context.
The lines of the chorus are awkward in the mouths of the soldiers, nurses and doctors in the hospital tent and there is no Great War equivalent for the personal battle that takes place between Odysseus and Ajax before the start of the play. Shepherd explains in his programme note that he was aware of the potential ‘anomalies’ but that ‘if Sophocles’ play proved to be more comprehensible with a contemporary social resonance, then it might be worth taking the risk’. Unfortunately in this production that risk failed.
Ajax is in repertoire at the Riverside Studios until July 25.
Box office: 0208 237 1111
Image by Luke Varley