Ajax (after Sophocles) – PTSD, metaphores and community. (Theatre Review)

Ajax (after Sophocles)

Burning House Theatre Company with Old 505 Theatre

23 April to 4 May. You can grab your tickets here.

In his program notes, director Robert Johnson explains that any approach toward a classic text (something Burning House theatre company from Melbourne take very seriously) should be founded upon searching for origins of meaning and context. He makes this statement to frame our watching of the current manifestation of Ajax showing at the Old 505 Theatre in Sydney. Robert Johnson states “What did it (the play) mean to its original audiences, and how do we translate that into the cultures of today?” Immediately obvious to this point is the staging of Ajax, an interpretation that focusses on cross culturalism and PTSD, on and around ANZAC day in Australia. Ajax is not a criticism of war per se, rather it’s a cry to respect our enemies and feel deeply for those associated with the trauma of war. But the suicide of Ajax on cleansing ocean shores extends beyond the trauma of The Other who has lived and breathed a war in real time, and instead reaches out to media depictions of the horrors of war and how they are preserved, passed down, and eventually coalesced into the narrative about The Event in itself. As Robert Johnson informs us, Sophocles plays were performed as part of a religious festival that honored the dead in battle. After witnessing a parade of young soldiers ready to go to war for their family and country, plays depicting the horrors of war were used to bring home the length and breadth of such a sacrifice. “It would have been remarkably confronting and would have forced you to consider the cost of war, the cyclical brutality of vengeance and how dear life truly is.” For Robert Johnson and Burning House then, bringing Ajax to the stage is more than the reproduction and modern translation of a traditional text. Ajax offers wordy wise context for our own ANZAC day celebrations and injects renewed vigor into the importance of cultural ceremonies that remember and celebrate those we have lost to war.

Inside war and its relation to all of us is the PTSD of culture as well as individuals. Metaphors such as “images” “flashes” memories that are “burned in” “etched” “engraved” and so on are more than just figures of speech. They are epistemological scaffoldings which are precursors of thought insofar as they form the basis from which concepts and theories will emerge. These descriptors become markers of events, formulating how we speak about trauma and potentially the way that trauma eventually strikes, as evidence reveals there is causal relation. Therefore, the way we speak about war not only helps us understand PTSD, but forms the basis of its ability to exist. How we speak about war inside our culture provides the platform upon which rupture can occur. The question becomes, how do we speak to each other and make sense of an event that essentially resists and is uncomfortable with narrative account?

Sophocles himself will not confront the question of Ajax as a character directly. Instead we are left to make what we will of the man and his words and the reactions to him of those around him. Ajax as a production is an attempt to connect each of us with ourselves and those outcast by trauma in some way using the remarkable intimacy of theatre as vehicle. The chance any theatre company takes when presenting any meditation on war is not to become part of the narrative that precedes by symbolic means. Psychoanalysis has told us that cultural symbols are part of the solution to the PTSD problem which rises from a rupture of cultural symbology at cause. The challenge for any theatre maker is to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Counter narratives tend to be isolatable to the technological world and part of theatres great and terrible power is that it has the ability to interrupt the relationship between media and trauma and its extension to The Real. It can interrupt the connection between technology and corporeality. What is so interesting about Ajax, that Robert Johnson correctly draws to our attention, is that Sophocles wrestled with the same problems Burning House have made their own with this production in locating its history around ANZAC Day. Notably absent from Sophocles world is the technology that has been held accountable for the theory that trauma is modern malaise.

Sydney is very fortunate to be able to bear witness to this well thought out and intelligent production of Ajax by Burning House Theatre Company. Director Robert Johnson imbues the production with the questions above, while also honoring the words, context and spirit of Sophocles original work. He has assembled a strong cast who confidently and courageously embody the multiplicities and nuances of this difficult work. At the helm is Seton Pollock as Ajax himself, PTSD sufferer, warrior, father and lover wrapped up in a fifty-five minute performance that successfully conveys a life of small actions brought together in a shocking, enormous whole. This is a tragic performance, often difficult to watch, of a white enraged man in his prime breaking down. Mirrors of this crises of self and confidence surround us at this time in history and the poignancy is fully appropriated for this stellar performance.

Fully and properly supporting Seton Pollock are performances from Chad O’Brien as Odysseus, Michelle Robertson as Tekmessa and Leikny Middleton as Eurysaka. Leikney Middleton (the second young child I have seen on an independent stage this week engaged in complex subject matter) deserves a special shout out for a properly wrought performance of an intense character that traverses multiple evocations that border on her own PTSD. Likewise Michelle Robertson puts in a beautiful physical performance that fully evokes the trauma of the wife, pajama clad, struggling for dignity, yet fully magical in her sadness. Chad O’Brien successfully conveys the power and horror of the man of war. A scene where he offers a bible to a Muslim child and another where he watches a ceremony performed off stage are magical moments of male suffering.

With a strong group of creatives such as Les Atallah’s cultural consultancy and Jessica Doutch’s graphic design, co-creators Jonothan Graffam and Robert Johnson have brought a strong adaptation of Sophocles beautiful play to the Sydney Old 505 Stage. This is the best kind of theatre, that which thoroughly adapts itself to essential cultural conversations of the day and refuses politesse-in-place-of-soul as a short cut to left wing sensibilities. This is a difficult play to watch, but at this time of the year in Sydney, it’s an important offering that will bring us closer and help us stand with all service women and men who endure the horrors of war and endure its power burned onto their life.