In the programme notes director Jack Shepherd relays his hopes of making this Sophocles play ‘more comprehensible with a contemporary social resonance’. So how did he end up with a production that lacks lucidity and feels so strangely inconsequential? As part of the Riverside Studio’s Madness season, the Love & Madness ensemble are in rep giving us a lively Macbeth. This version of Ajax transplanted to WW1 is next on the bill; regrettably however, a play about one man’s pride, arrogance and vengeance is slovenly utilised as general commentary on war.
Lest we forget, Ajax is a character who throws a monumental hissy fit after being refused Achilles’ armour during the Trojan War and in retribution attempts to massacre the whole of his own high command. Fooled by the Goddess Athena, he slaughters the army’s flock of sheep instead and subsequently revels in the belief that he is torturing his fellow Greek Odysseus until realising that in fact he is tormenting animals. Humiliated, he commits suicide, with the final part of the play consisting of a debate over whether he should be conferred the honour of burial or left on the beach impaled on his own sword.
We are asked to subscribe to the belief that the central character is a sympathetic figure afflicted by battle fatigue, but this leaves Iarla McGowan’s Ajax without a shred of sanity with which to convey the supposed authority he has lost. Here he is a weak, teary figure whose swift journey from ignominious beginning to ignominious end consists of the plangent cries of a madman out of context.
Sophocles’ genius was in casting an equivocal eye at individual desires vis-à-vis communal demands but here Shepherd wants to pit this sorry figure as hero against negligent authority. Menelaus pops up with an inexplicably Hitlerish moustache, denying the burial as if it is an exercise in bureaucratic obfuscation and Dan Mullane’s Agamemnon is an incoherent drunk, here threatening to ‘stamp on the corpse’. They are, of course, the bad guys.
Robert Cannon’s overly-practical translation excises a certain subtlety from the characters while the production imposes a trite dualistic perspective over an otherwise ambiguous meditation on societal transgression.
We are left with neither a poignant piece on the futility of war nor a refreshing realisation of tragedy and by the end you wonder whether a new play could’ve been written instead of skewering a classic whose contemporary ‘resonance’ would be best served elsewhere.