Following The Mummy Returns and Atlantis, and his extensive career in classical theatre, Joe Dixon now stars in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s latest play Our Ajax, a response to Sophocles’s classical tragedy Ajax. It tells the story of a great hero who begins to unravel: “This play about the devastation of a tortured mind really resonates. Although it is an ancient story about an ancient warrior, it is very much about today’s warriors and the unimaginable things that they go through. Being exposed to such extraordinary darkness can understandably lead to your mind and soul being affected,” says Dixon.
Wertenbaker spoke to servicemen and veterans, and Dixon relates the parallels between the experiences of soldiers past and present: “although post traumatic stress disorder is a term we use today to explain some of the casualties of conflict, if you look at descriptions of soldiers from ancient texts through to Shakespeare, clearly warriors across the millennia have had the same symptoms. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s description of Achilles’s behaviour after facing so much conflict reads as a manual for the symptoms of PTSD.”
The success of Wertenbaker’s plays, such as the recently revived Our Country’s Good, must make starring in the world premiere of her new one somewhat daunting, but Dixon only expresses his gratitude: “The play is beautiful, but harsh and devastating. It is not an easy world to inhabit, and is a great challenge to play a character suffering from mentally and physically deterioration. What has been extraordinary is to have Timberlake in rehearsals: Timberlake has her own personal insight into this role she has created and to have her there has been very helpful.”
Issues may arise from dealing with an old story in a new play, but according to Dixon only good has come from this: “For me it was useful to have the knowledge of the Sophoclean play, but at the end of the day it is a new play; it is so beautifully written yet visceral and very much about a contemporary group of men in a modern day setting. We get the feeling that these people do exist and that they are in the real world: there is not that kind of safety net of ‘well this doesn’t really happen, it is far away and mythology’. Timberlake has used rich, lyrical language that follows in the classical tradition of storytelling, but she has also captured the very contemporary feel of soldiers we know to be fighting in battles right now. It is a play about honour and heroes, as well all the anxieties and questions that must be asked when one is in that situation.”
Dixon has been lucky enough to work in film, theatre and television: “I love a challenge, and being sent an exciting script that I can imagine is going to be difficult and hard but ultimately really rewarding to try to get my head round and try to make a convincing character out of. I love the theatre, film and television for different reasons. Having a good script is the common denominator for all three. In the end, they all involve the same process of how I can make this character believable. Every job – whether a film, play or TV show – has camaraderie and everyone becomes a family which is wonderful, but there always has to be an element of fun, otherwise what is the point?”
When asked for advice about developing his craft, Dixon pointed out the benefits of theatre: “I think actors who have primarily done television and film sometimes find it difficult to suddenly be thrown into big theatrical roles and perform live in front of an audience several times a week; it requires quite a different physiology and you have to work on different muscles. It works the other way round for young actors to start off in theatre and learn about your voice and how to move your body and then to use that going into the other disciplines. I was very fortunate in my early career to do a lot of classical theatre and I think that is good training for any actor: you have all this extraordinary language floating around in your head and at your disposal to take into film and television.”
Dixon’s own path into professional acting developed him not only as an actor but also as a human being: “I think that drama school should be part of the national curriculum: we all left completely self-confident and more assured of where we sat in the world and I think that is invaluable for life not just for acting. At RADA, we were asked to read three books: Towards a Poor Theatre, Creating a Role and The Empty Space, and they have been a major part of how I approach a role. I am where I am now through a combination of my drama teacher and the director at youth theatre. I joined Birmingham Youth Theatre and got a really good sense of what it was like to be an actor in terms of performance. Do some research and find a good, established local theatre; it gives you a sense of what it could be like to pursue a career in that field.”
Joe Dixon is currently starring in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Ajax at Southwark Playhouse. For more information and tickets visit Southwark Playhouse’s website.
Photo: Camillia Greenwell.