A daring way to stage an ancient Greek story of honour.
Sophocles’ Ajax, directed by Maria Makenna for Esmond Road Productions was performed at the Space on 5 – 10 December 2017.
In the original version by Sophocles Ajax is a story of Honour among heroes in ancient Greece. Made blind with rage by the goddess Athena who wants to punish him, Ajax, the strongest warrior in the Greek army, kills a flock of sheep in the belief that they are the enemy. Once the truth is revealed, he can’t bear the shame he is condemned to for the rest of his life.
Therefore, adhering to the law of honour of his time, he bravely moves away and kills himself. The reason why he fell into a rage originally was that he was denied the honour of possessing his beloved friend Achilles’ shield and helm, after the hero had been killed by another Trojan warrior, Paride.
For centuries our society modelled itself on Ancient Greece and its philosophers and artists. Many of their moral values and achievements are still respected today, although it was clearly a male dominated, patriarchal society.
Ajax was written more than 2500 years ago and inevitably reflected that face.
It was meant to be played by a cast that was almost all male, if only because war at the time, was an all male affair. Women were mainly required to be devoted to men, to be good housekeepers, obedient, loyal and modest. Nothing surprising about that. These were the qualities required of women for many centuries to come.
There is only one difference between the original version of Ajax and the new Esmond Road Production: that is the director Maria Makenna’s decision to have it played by an all-female cast. The adaptation includes the conversion of all the references to male characters in the text into female characters, making it a powerful and provocative new script. Delivered by women in 2017, the tragedy of Ajax not only becomes more contemporary, fresh and even futuristic, but it also opens more interesting and provocative questions about female identity, and indeed identity in general.
An example of how striking this can become is the fact that Ajax is the incarnation of the virtues of constancy in commitments and perseverance, and embodies the ideal of rebellion against the tyrant, and it is interesting to see a woman in our age incarnate these virtues. In the same way, Odysseus, Agamennon, and all the powerful characters are women. This makes the whole structure of the society where the play takes place seem new to the audience’s eyes.
While some details move us away from clichés about the woman being the weakest sex, others now point back to it. For example, when instead of the original’s “you are a man, be brave,” we hear, “you are a woman, be brave”.
Other statements and declarations, when heard after centuries of struggle for women’s rights, sound interestingly strident. Where he original has: “he is just a man” (spoken by a Goddess and referred to Ajax), we now have “She is just a woman.” Even where the text is unchanged, as when Ajax says of his lover Tecsa, “Silence adds grace to a woman,” the effect is peculiarly provocative with the all-female cast.
This is a strong and talented ensemble of actors, the play has beautiful choral moments, and it is directed with courage and innovative spirit.
Most of all, though, this remains a story of Honour, the story of a woman who choses to die because this she has made a mistake, regardless of whether the responsibility was hers, or the goddess Athena’s. She ends her life following the same powerful instinct that previously made her so formidable a soldier. So what we have is a true, honest hero, who is a woman. In a world where the powerful very often lie to the world and where most people are driven greed for gain to the detriment of the common well-being, the decision to stage Ajax is inspiring and the fact that women are the ones telling the story now is comforting and augurs well for the future.