by Timberlake Wertenbaker.
Southwark Playhouse (The Large) 77-86 Newington Causeway SE1 6BD To 30 November 2013.
Mon-Sat 8pm Mat Sat 3.30pm.
Runs 1hr 40min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7407 0234.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 9 November.
Modern trauma and ancient tragedy fail to fuse..
There’s something alienating about watching a play demonstrating the tensions of a desert war-zone while sitting in a freezing-cold auditorium. As the sun beats down on the bright sand, and emotions run high, it’s easy to feel a cooling-off period might help.
It’s a peril of adapting Greek Tragedy that elements from the original’s belief-system and its dramatic structure can easily leak over into the new play and end-up seeming unconvincing. So, what precisely is the Greek goddess Athena doing alongside the bloodied, distraught Ajax? Gemma Chan’s slinkily-attired, evanescent-mannered goddess, talking of “God’s IEDs” seems less a guide than an irrelevance in the world of automatic rifles toted for practice, and traumatic stress.
Cultural distance provides, if not enchantment, tolerance. A modern officer declaiming his agonies seems merely to express the nerve-threatening horrors of battle, not comment on humanity and the gods – the ancient Greeks’ contribution to the progress of human consciousness.
Modern officers, and all soldiers, are men amongst us. It makes the thoughtful Odysseus more vivid then raging Ajax, while the identification of the troops as animals, seemingly effortless then, seems artificial now. Nor does Tecmessa’s talk of “the middle of the night when in my culture we pray because at that time the blood-soaked earth releases the stench of death” (etc.) make a woman’s voice either real or tragic; it just sounds like a slightly starchy translation from the Greek.
Joe Dixon gives Ajax a sense of pain behind the proclamations the script imposes upon him in David Mercatali’s production. Adam Riches is able to give a sense of soldierly reality to Odysseus; he’s the one person it’s possible to believe might have come from a war rather than a play about a war.
The soldiers are varyingly performed, while William Postlethwaite brings a depth to to young Teucer, Ajax’s half-brother.
But the piece is awkwardly caught between a production of Sophocles’ original tragedy, which could allow audiences to pick-out their points of relevance, and a far freer new play that would give independent life to the characters and allow the development of an independent tone.
Tecmessa: Frances Ashman.
Athena: Gemma Chan.
Sergeant Major: Oliver Devoti.
Ajax: Joe Dixon.
Teucer: William Postlethwaite.
Odysseus: Adam Riches.
Menelaos: John Schwab.
Child: Douglas Wood.
Soldiers: James Kermack, Jordan Mifsud, Fiona Skinner.
Director: David Mercatali.
Designer: James Turner.
Lighting: Christopher Nairne.
Sound: Max Pappenheim.
Assistant directors: Tom Latter, Kate Morrison-Wynne.