(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/8.)
Timberlake Wertenbaker has been inspired by Sophocles's Ajax to write a play about the stresses of modern warfare. The result, as always with this writer, is sharp, witty and intelligent, but Wertenbaker's adherence to much of the form and content of the Sophoclean original inevitably produces occasional anachronistic oddities.
In Sophocles's version, the Greek warrior goes berserk when the armour of the dead Achilles is awarded to his deadly rival, Odysseus. In Wertenbaker's version, Ajax is a modern military hero who loses his mind in a desert training exercise when passed over for promotion. But although, as in Sophocles, his frenzy takes the form of slaughtering cattle, this is only the cue for an examination of the crackups that are a feature of contemporary war. This Ajax is brought down by a combination of factors: parental expectations, length of service, individual hubris and, above all, what Athena calls "a barrage of blood-soaked memories".