AJAX: Brutal melodrama in an engaging new translation, with a staging that works as often as it doesn’t.
The ancient Greek tragedies struggle for a modern audience. The themes that Sophocles and Euripides wrote about – the helplessness of humans before the gods; submission to law as a virtue – don’t resonate with modern audiences.* Also, their plays are 24 centuries old and in another language. Translation is required not only across continents – ancient Greek to American English – but across centuries as well.
The translation used in the A.R.T.’s production, in modern English by Charles Connaghan, preserves the story’s power. It avoids flowery phrases for terse, direct prose. When the Chorus complains that “all men take aim at the great,” it’s instantly clear what he means: how glory attracts envy, while the anonymous can go unchallenged.
The performances also ground the ancient story in a modern context. They’re melodramatic, sure, but it’s the melodrama of a real life tragedy – stammering, heads buried in hands, halting steps – rather than the melodrama usually associated with the stage. Linda Powell as Tecmessa is particularly good in this regard, making her plight as a woman at risk of returning to slavery compelling. Ajax (Brent Harris) avoids playing his madness as a one-note symphony – he catapults between shame, rage, confusion and the tired wisdom of remorse.
To further reinforce the modern context, A.R.T. has staged Ajax in a war zone. The stage is a mess hall pavilion, its folding chairs and plastic tables strewn about in a mess. Odysseus, Ajax and the other soldiers wear desert-camo army fatigues, while the Chorus dresses like an embedded journalist. No reference is made to any specific war, because the story is not about one specific war. The madness of a hero is timeless.
As with Paradise Lost, however, A.R.T.’s use of multimedia has its hits and misses. Athena (Kaaron Briscoe) communicates with Odysseus (Ron Cephas Jones) in the first scene via radio – an excellent touch that reminds us of her all-seeing presence. But the acts are punctuated by snippets of interviews on a massive video wall. The interviews have a calm, conversational tone, conflicting with the melodramatic thrust of the play. We switch from passion and tragedy to dispassionate commentary. Sometimes the interviews add insight to the events of the previous scene; more often, they’re just distracting.
Ajax is part of a repertoire produced by Theater of War, an organization that works in conjunction with the USO to stage performances and readings of Greek tragedies in American military installations around the world. The point is to show military service members that the personal crises they suffer through are not only common to all people, but common to soldiers throughout history – even twenty-five centuries ago. Watching Ajax rant on stage, covered in the blood of cattle whom he slew in delusion, I wondered how such a story would resonate with a modern military audience. Sophocles’s story isn’t about Ajax’s prowess, or even about Ajax’s madness. Rather, it’s about people’s reaction to his madness. It’s about the gossip, mistrust, shame and remorse that blossom from one brutal incident, and how that can mar an otherwise glorious career. With Connaghan’s language, and with performances as accessible as those at the A.R.T., that story can still resonate.
* Which isn’t to suggest that submission to law is no longer regarded as a virtue. Rather, it’s not portrayed as a virtue in entertainment. Pop culture celebrates rebels – the cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results, the kid who topples the high school hierarchy, the young couple who throw away promising careers because they’re in LOVE, etc. TV is our means of escape.