Our Ajax - production image 1 - L-R James Kermack (soldier) & Joe Dixon (Ajax) - image by Camillia Greenwell

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s re-working of Sophocles’s tragedy places Ajax and his platoon firmly in the modern day with text messages, references to YouTube, IEDs. And yet, this war, these years in an unspecified desert, is also all wars – Troy, Vietnam, Basra. In trying to both update the original and ground it in its time and notions of honour, the play sells itself short. It is striving for universality but in doing so it undermines the specificity of the horrors of waterboarding and so-called collateral damage. It allows the audience to distance itself – to place this play firmly in a mythological setting when honour is everything and therefore not to examine the traumas and tortures of modern warfare.

We can draw the parallels – war is bad and soldiers suffer, too – but the Sophoclean hangover is distracting. The message is a simple one, and one that has been sadly true for thousands of years. Here, what we essentially have is an Ajax with a case of severe PTSD. The trauma of what he has seen and done, along with jealousy at being passed-over for promotion, break his mind, sending him on a misguided muderous rampage. But we also have the meddling goddess Athena, looking out for the recently-promoted Odysseus and directing the jealous Ajax towards a flock of sheep and goats rather than his intended human targets.

The goddess (Gemma Chan), who speaks to the men, who is a physical, taunting presence on stage, is also referred to as just “a voice in my head”. So, real or the fictions of a mind at breaking point? It’s never quite clear. I’d be inclined towards the latter except that the play clings to notions of honour that we no longer recognise as of such importance. What is frustrating, though, is that there’s rather a lot of showing and telling going on. When we are presented with a broken Ajax, weeping and keening and incoherent, covered in blood, we don’t also need to be told that explicitly that physical wounds are easier to treat than mental ones and that war is traumatic.

It’s well-directed, though (by David Mercatali), if occasionally a little too much for the small space. Dialling it back a notch might serve to make the production itself even more powerful. Joe Dixon is a superb and surprisingly sympathetic Ajax, showing us the man he was as well as what the war has done to him. The simple, sand-strewn set conjures up the desert, and the cast do well to convey both the horror and the tedium of war. The cameraderie is well-played, too, showing us that what happens to Ajax affects all of his men.

As a piece about the ravages of modern warfare, Our Ajax is an intelligent and incisive piece of writing, which hammers home the dangers of placing soliders in inhuman situations. Its examination of the damage war does to people is harrowing and extremely well-acted, but the anachronisms that arise from trying to stick too closely Sophocles’s play are distracting.

Our Ajax is at Southwark Playhouse until 30 November. For more information and tickets visit the Southwark Playhouse’s website

Photo by Camillia Greenwell.