Sunday, 6 November 2016

Ajax in Iraq

While I have been to a few shows at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, in my mind it is more of a two week party than a showcase of theatrical performances that are generally not picked up by the mainstream theatre (or are simply so amateurish that the mainstream won't touch them). From what I recall of my time in Adelaide the Fringe basically consisted of an opening parade, the Garden of Unearthly Delights which was little more than a number of bars, a Ferris wheel, and tents where you will encounter the weird and wonderful. Mind you, as the Fringe has grown in popularity, so have the number of areas that are attempting to mimic the Garden of Unearthly Delights.

While I may have had a lot of fun over my time at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, the Melbourne Fringe tends to come and go without me actually realising that it is on. Maybe this has something to do with Melbourne being the cultural capital of Australia, and their Fringe Festival is just one of the many annual events (such as the Comedy Festival, the Spring Racing Carnival, and of course the Grand Final Public Holiday). It could also be that it coincides with the Footy Finals which means that people are more interested in the bread and circuses that happen to be sports as opposed to what amounts to amateur theatrical productions. Actually, when I come to think of it, those who happen to be interested in theatrical productions tend not to be all that interested in sport, and vice versa. So, maybe it is that, unlike the Adelaide Fringe, the Melbourne Fringe simply isn't mainstream.

However, as I was sitting in a pub waiting for friend to bring me a beer I found a magazine sitting on the table in front of me which was outlining the various productions that were currently on. Being somewhat curious (though not expecting all that much) I decided to have a look through it, just in case something caught my eye. As it turned out, after posting a review of Julius Caesar on my Facebook page, one of the followers made mention of a production of Julius Caesar that was on at the Frige. Unfortunately it seems that I missed it, however what I didn't miss was a modernised production of Sophocles' Ajax. Actually, as soon as I discovered that there was a performance of Ajax on I pretty much cancelled my plans for Sunday night and made sure that I was there as the doors opened.

A Greek Tragedy

Okay, maybe if it happened to be a Shakespearian play people might have an idea as to what the plot was, however since it is Ancient Greek more likely than not the average punter has no idea what it is about. Sure, they may have heard of the Trojan War, or Achilles, and Odysseus, but they probably have no context whatsoever to put them in. Sure, the story of the wooden horse that was placed outside the gates, that happened to be loaded full of Greek Soldiers, and was brought into the city in the belief that it was a gift from the Greeks to say sorry for laying siege to their city for ten years. As it turned out, it wasn't a gift, but a trap, and during the night the Greek soldiers hidden in the horse crept out, opened the gates, and a mass slaughter ensured. It is from this event that the term 'beware of Greeks bearing gifts' originated.

However the story of Ajax, or Aias as is known in the Greek (Ajax is his Latin name, and for some reason seems to remind me of a cleaning fluid, namely because there happens to be a cleaning fluid named Ajax) occurs a little before the trick with the horse, though a short while after the Iliad, namely after Achilles was killed. The thing with Achilles was that he was supposed to be immortal as his mother had dipped him in a river as a child, however his invulnerabity didn't include his ankle since that was where his mother held him when he was dipped in the river (which is interesting because there is a similar thing with Sigfried from the Nibelungenlied). Actually, this whole story about the heal is actually a later addition because there is no mention of the heal, or Achilles' invulnerability, in the Illiad.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Achilles is killed when Paris hits him with an arrow. The legend has it that the arrow hit him in the heal, but it could simply be that Paris got a lucky shot, maybe in the neck, since I am still trying to work out how somebody can actually be killed by an arrow in the heal. So, many of us have probably heard of how Achilles died, but the play Ajax is about what happened afterwards - the thing is that Achilles was a pretty powerful soldier, and his armour was pretty impressive, and when he died his armour was up for grabs and the two front runners were Ajax and Odysseus. The thing with Ajax is that he is your typical soldier - a grunt. He is good at what he does, that is killing people, but when it comes to interacting with others be basically sucks (a lot like me in some ways). However Odysseus is famous for his guile and his trickery, and when Achilles' armour comes up for grabs, Odysseus is able to sway the audience over to his side, thus leaving Ajax out in the cold.

However, all of this happens before the play begins because the bulk of the play deals with Ajax's response to what he sees as a betrayal. When he discovers that the armour has been awarded to Odysseus he flies into a fit of rage and goes and seeks out those who he believed betrayed him to kill them. However, Athena clouds his mind and instead of killing Agamemnon and his ilk, ends up killing a bunch of sheep and goats. Still, this doesn't go down all that well, particularly since these sheep and goats aren't there for decorations - they are the army's food supplies. The play then focuses on Ajax's guilt and torment, which eventually leads to his death (by his own hards). Yes, I know that may sound like a spoiler, but when we realise that the original audience already knew the story, the fact that I told you that Ajax kills himself is a moot point - the play wasn't about what happens at the end, because the audience already knows what happens, it is about how we get to that point.

A Modern Interpretation

One of the big problems with staging Ancient plays in the modern period is that not many people actually know anything about them. Sure, I have seen a production of Antigone, but that wasn't a production that stuck close to the original play but rather one that took a modern twist. The thing with Greek plays, and in fact with any plays, is that they can be rather expensive to run. For instance, the Greek plays would have what is known as a Chorus, which could be anywhere of up to fifty actors who would sing and provide commentary on the story. The problem these days is that most companies that are willing to stage a Greek play simply could not afford a Chorus, and even if they could they certainly would end up running at a loss - fifty actors, even if they are little more than extras, are still pretty expensive. As such most modern productions tend to dispense with the chorus, or if they do use them they only have a handful of actors (this version of Ajax had no Chorus and only four actors).

The other thing is that many of us aren't all that familiar with Greek history and culture. Sure, we may have heard of the Trojan War, but in a lot of cases that is probably thanks to Brad Pitt. We have probably also heard of the Greek Gods, but once again we can probably thank Clash of the Titans for that, and even then Clash of the Titans is definitely not faithful to the original story (and it doesn't even have anything to do with the Trojan War - it is the story of Perseus and Andromeda).  Okay, I probably shouldn't knock Troy because I thought that it was actually a pretty cool movie, but the thing is that it only gives us a glimpse, and a rewritten glimpse at that, into the world of the Ancient Greeks.

However, what is particularly noticeable is that while the action, and the setting, may be thousands of years from our own time, the themes behind the play are just as relevant to the world we live in today, particularly when we are talking about life in the military. I have actually read a couple of books where the authors have taken Ancient Greek stories, in particular the Iliad and the Odyssey (as well as Heracles Furens), and extrapolated them to help us understand that the struggle of the Ancient Greek Warrior is the same as the struggles our soldiers face today.

This is probably why the play was not only set in the contemporary period, but why the director suggested that the action occurred in Iraq (and interestingly there is a play doing a circuit of the United States called Ajax in Iraq). It is interesting that most of the dialogue occurs between Ajax and Tecmesa, who not only happens to be Ajax's wife, but also a native Trojan. Like the Greeks at Troy, who took Trojan wives, soldiers in Vietnam would take Vietnamese woman as wives (or simply concubines). Honestly, I am not so sure if the same thing happened in Iraq, but it certainly happened not just in Vietnam, but wherever troops were deployed - while the women apparently started off as prostitutes, in a number of cases the relationships would end up growing a lot deeper. What I thought was a really good aspect of the play was how Tecmesa prayed on the Muslim prayer mat at the beginning, and the end, of the play.

Yet the director tried to keep as much of the original as possible. Sure Ajax carried a modern assault rifle, and Odysseus carried a modern pistol, but they constantly referred to the region that they were stationed in as Asia (even though these days we would refer to it as the Middle East, or more specifically Turkey because I don't envisage Turkey as being in the Middle East). The thing is that in the Greek World it was the Mediterranean (or Middle Earth) sea that was the centre of the world - everything to the north was Europe, everything to the South was Africa, and everything to the East was Asia. As we are well aware this division has remained with us to the present time.

Understanding PTSD

Back in university I studied the Greek Tragedies, and took a specific subject that looked at the Greek and Roman writers. During my studies Ajax was one of the plays that I looked at, and I have to admit that I loved it from when I was first exposed to it. In a way it follows Aristotle's rules of tragedy to a tea - it sticks with the unity of time and place, and Ajax is the classic tragic hero with a fatal flaw. Not only that but the play ends badly, really badly, for all involved. Sure, this modern version has Odysseus comfort the mourning Tecmessa and her child, but what we are seeing is the play being brought into the modern world - in the world of the Ancient Greeks people who weren't Greeks simply didn't have any identity in their world.

However, the thing that struck me with this play was how well Sophocles understood the nature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What we have is Ajax's honour being undermined, and in a fit of rage launches an assault against those who he believed undermined his honour. The interesting thing (and I am a lot more specific in my Goodreads review because I wrote that back when I was working in Personal Injury) is that we see Ajax's descent into depression that ultimately results in him killing himself. However, while it is placed in the context of a war, and of a soldier who has given his all and is not rewarded as such, it could be viewed in many other ways as well.

The thing with these Greek plays is that we are dealing with the officers of the army as opposed to the ordinary soldier. Mind you, in the world of the Ancient Greeks everybody would end up in the army, especially if you were either Spartan or Athenian. The Spartan society was geared entirely towards war and all Spartan citizens were effectively trained as special forces soldiers - if you couldn't handle the training, which involved being cast out of the city as a child to survive against the forces of nature, then you were not worthing of being a citizen of Sparta. With the Athenians it was a lot different - the Athenians had a democratic society and its citizens were free to pursue their own goals. However, that didn't mean that you were excused from playing your part in the wars. The thing with Athens (and pretty much all of the other cities in Greece) was that they didn't have a standing army. In fact, with the exception of Sparta, standing armies simply did not exist. If an army was needed then the ordinary citizens were called upon to play their part. However the catch was that the ordinary citizen needed to also provide their own weapons and armour, which means that the poorer segments of society would end up rowing boats.

The point that I am raising here is that war was a natural part of the Ancient Greek's life (and more so the Ancient Athenians, particularly since this play was performed in front of a bunch of Athenians). In fact, the world in which we live, in which very few, if any, of us actually join the army, let alone see action, much of what goes on in this play, and many others, would probably go over our heads. The thing is that we live in a society that is effectively at peace, and even if there is conscription (which there isn't, and will unlikely appear in the future since any government that attempts to introduce it is doomed to spend the next number of years in the political wilderness), most of us would never see action, especially in the world of remote controlled dromes. 

However, in the world of the Ancient Greeks this was not the case - if you were at war, and you were young, and male, then you would be expected to fight. Sure, many historians make mention that World War I was the first instance of total war, but in reality back in the world of the Ancient Greeks, if you were at war then the entire society was at war - there was no escape from it. Even though it has been over half a century since our entire society has been mobilised for war, and the only wars that we have fought since the end of World War II have basically been bush wars at the fringes of our empire. This wasn't the case with the Greeks - each generation had their own wars, and everybody experienced the tragedy, and the horror, or war, and needed a way to be able to deal with it - this is where the tragedies came to in to play - they existed to help the returned soldiers deal with the horror of war.

Modern War

I want to finish off here with a quick discussion of weapons. In the play we had what in effect was action in the modern Middle East with assault rifles and improvised explosive devices. Back in the days of Sophocles it was much different - swords, shields, and arrows. Battle back then was up close and personal, and a lot less mobile. Armies would meet on the battlefield and slug it out manno-a-manno. You knew who your enemy was, and you knew who your friends were. However these days it is much different, and I am not talking about our experiences in World War II, I am speaking about Iraq. Here we don't know who the enemy is, we don't know where the trap is being laid - every step outside of the camp is dangerous. Further more this isn't the case where the camp is safe and the outside is dangerous - even the camp in dangerous.

I paid particular attention to the events that occurred in Iraq, partly because I considered that it was a really, really bad idea that we went in there in the first place. While at first it seemed like we had won, it pretty quickly degenerated into an insurgent war. In a way this is exactly what happened in Vietnam - in fact Iraq was almost a rerun of Vietnam, with the major exception that when we pulled out of Vietnam the region stabilised to an extent. This hasn't happened in the Middle East because our intervention in Iraq resulted in the Arab Spring, which has effectively completely destabilised the region, and all we need to do is look at the never ending war in Syria and the rise of ISIS as evidence of this.

However, this version of Ajax was clearly set in the Middle East, even though the suggestion is that we were still in Anatolia. In the original play Ajax kills himself, however in this play his death is left up in the air. Sure, we see Ajax shoot himself in the chest, but this isn't the end - Odysseus is then left to determine the cause of his death, and there is a suggestion that they believe that he was killed by an enemy sniper - we were told that they were lurking in the area. Okay, he finally works out that he actually shot himself, but he doesn't actually reveal that to anybody - in a way a death by sniper is much more honorable than suicide.

Anyway, I wish to finish off by making mention that as a performance this was really, really good. While they had diverged somewhat from the original play, and modernised the language quite a lot, they maintained the original themes and the idea of the dishonoured soldier and the fact that the Greeks understood quite clearly the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder.
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  1. That sounds like a rather interesting take on a classic. I haven't seen any live versions of the Greek plays for the reasons you mention above. I think also that the fact that so much of the action does tend to occur in the commentary by the Chorus, rather than in the dialogue of the actors makes it an unfamiliar genre for modern audiences. I would be particularly interested in seeing Medea live someday.

  2. Thankyou for your comment. I wasn't sure what to expect when I got my ticket, but it certainly was enjoyable. Apparently there was a similar version floating around Los Angeles recently. I'd like to see Medea as well - it's one of my favourite plays.