In her production of Sophocles’ “Ajax,” director Sarah Benson takes a route popular in contemporary culture and seeks to portray war as hell. The genius of the Ancient Greeks, however, was to recognize that war causes the intensification of all human experience, good and bad. Benson’s limited interpretation, which portrays it solely as a detriment to society and individuals, fails to do justice to the multifaceted exploration of war and its consequences in Sophocles’ text.
The American Repertory Theater production’s narrow scope is a pity, because in many other respects the production is genuinely successful. A vast, cavernous set—effectively representing Ajax’s tent—threatens to swallow the actors whole, yet the action remains compelling due to the energy of their performances. Special mention should go to Brent Harris as an immense, chiseled Ajax, Ron Cephas Jones as a conflicted Odysseus and Thomas Derrah in the ostensible bad-guy role of Agamemnon. Charles Connaghan’s translation loses a little bit of the nuance of the Greek, but is otherwise satisfyingly muscular and clear—appropriate language for the military camp in which the play is set.
Ajax is one of the mythical heroes of the Epic Cycle. In Sophocles’ play, his murderous attempts at revenge on his Greek rivals Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon are diverted by the goddess Athena into the blind slaughter of the army’s cattle. On waking from his divinely-induced madness, he commits suicide out of shame. To a certain extent, the story overlaps with Benson’s last piece, a well-recieved production of Sarah Kane’s “Blasted” at the Soho Rep. Both explore the impact of war on human psychology in the form of alienation from loved ones, desensitization to violence, and even madness.
Unfortunately, Benson’s determination to convey this, and thereby make the play more obviously relevant to a contemporary audience—the costumes and set design are highly derivative of modern U.S. army fatigues and hardware—has led her to twist the text into an almost unrecognizable shape. Most emblematic of this is her treatment of that vital staple of Greek tragedy: the Chorus. Modern directors often approach the Chorus with trepidation, fearing that its highly formal, stylized interludes will be too alien or too ritualistic for a contemporary audience. Consequently, directors try to sideline the Chorus or reduce its significance in the play. This is a deep misunderstanding of the text and foundation of classical tragedy, completely ignoring the fact that historically the Chorus came first—in Sophocles’ time, actors were still regarded as something of an experimental, new-fangled invention.
Benson’s treatment falls into this exact trap. The Chorus is represented as a collection of talking heads on projector screens above the stage. These speakers fill breaks in the text normally containing the most evocative language in the play with their own words, rendering them devoid of interest. Most of the heads spout everyday banalities—“it sucks, it really sucks right now”—and the few of interest, mainly veterans of modern wars, say little to do with Ajax’s story.
Benson has attempted to turn the focus of the play completely towards the Trojan War, neglecting its important ideas on honor, family, and fate. 2000 year gap or no, these are themes that are universal, and a proper appreciation for the role of the Chorus is essential for conveying them. Whether or not the director chooses to mimic the highly formulaic staging of an Athenian amphitheatre, she must at least find a way of portraying the Chorus so that it fulfills the same role in the text as was originally intended. Otherwise the play feels oddly dissatisfying and empty, as “Ajax” does despite the brave performances of the cast. In trying to make “Ajax” a play for our time, Benson has forgotten that it is a play for all time.