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Our Ajax, Southwark Playhouse – Review

Sophocles
Adapted by Timberlake Wertenbacher
Directed by David Mercatali
★★★

Pros: Thought provoking and deeply meaningful script, raising questions of life and death whilst making a mockery of modern warfare. Star-filled cast makes it feel less Fringe and more West End.

Cons: The dialogues don’t quite manage to glue together and some characters seem to appear just out of the blue. A handful of funny anachronisms.

Our Verdict: A blood-soaked adaptation of a Greek classic with a stellar cast. Despite some plot gaps, it’s a fun show to watch that will give you some chills and some serious food for thought.

Credit: Camilla Greenwell

From all the positive reviews and star-filled cast of this new effort by the much acclaimed Wertenbacher, I was full of expectations as I entered the strange but welcoming sandy arena at Southwark Playhouse.

What, an eternal Greek classic, brought back into new life by a multi-award-winning playwright and a cast featuring the likes of comedian Adam Riches (Foster’s Edinburgh Festival Award 2011), powerful Joe Dixon (The Bill, Doctor Who) and model-come-goddess Gemma Chan (Sherlock Holmes, Fresh Meat)? This is going to be crazy good!

And it’s fair to say that the writing is intelligent and splendidly provocative. Dealing with the madness of modern day warfare, the deprivations of daily live in a desert camp and psychotic decompensation turning a war hero into a sheep-killing freak – this play manages to stimulate a lot of thinking.

In the original Sophocles’ script, Ajax goes berserk after learning that Achilles’ armour was going to his arch-rival Odysseus, rather than to him. As his rage turns against the Greek leaders, he is fooled by Athena – the Goddess of War – into thinking that they had turned into sheep and cattle. So, he slaughters them brutally and eventually, as he realizes the mistake, is driven to suicide by shame.

Now, Our Ajax transports this plot into an Afghanistan-based desert camp, and as a blood-soaked Ajax (Joe Dixon) enters the sandy arena that is the stage, carrying a bundle of sheep’s body parts, he is toweringly scary as his madness becomes palpable. A word of warning, only take the front rows if you like seeing blood splattered around you! And watching Athena (Gemma Chan) appear in a lovely lace dress, mocking the humans for their empathy and inept war tactics was undoubtedly one of the most provocative plot moves. Her beauty offered a stark contrast to the brutality of blood splattering and army talk.

As the story develops, we were presented with heaps of profound dilemmas: why are wars fought in the first place? How long can humans endure before they lose their mind? Is love more powerful then death? Can my father turn me into a monster? Why am I in the Army in the first place?

However, despite all the positive thought-provocation and some excellent individual acting, the whole lot didn’t seem to quite glue together. The actors appeared to be reciting their lines rather than talking to each other in a harmonious dialogue, except for some enjoyable scenes at the camp, when the soldiers were having a bit of fun together. I wondered how Ajax was suddenly married with his camp doctor (Frances Ashman), who was also meant to be saving him from suicidal ideation. Good luck with that one! And debating over a burial of a war hero was perfectly meaningful in ancient Greece, but seriously, would US and British authorities really consider leaving a fallen hero’s body to rot in the desert sun? And where did Ajax’s son and half brother suddenly come from?

No doubt, Much of these apparent plot gaps were the inevitable result of a 2500 year-gap between the original script and Wertenbacher’s adaptation. Surely, the world has moved on from waging wars for personal revenge and glory to a business-like model of warfare… and this must have been a titanic task to adapt. In fact, despite my perplexities, I had fun watching this. Call me blood-thirsty.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Our Ajax runs at Southwark Playhouse until 30th November 2013.
Box Office: 020 7407 0234 or book online at http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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