Following their production of Coriolanus, Burning House continues to delve into a world of constant warfare and bloodshed with one of history’s oldest tragedies, Ajax.
Set near the end of the Trojan War, the play follows Ajax’s hopeless rage when recognition for his actions during the war is passed over to the more controlled Odysseus and Agamemnon. Despite pleading from both his family and fellow officers, Ajax is ultimately consumed by anger, hate and shame. Focusing primarily on the play’s opening and centre, it steps away from a mythical world of heroes and legends into a contemporary interpretation that is deeply human.
Robert Johnson’s soundscape is both mechanical and primal, with jet engines blurring into the roar of waves and sirens blaring underneath the dialogue. It sets the stage for a world where even peace is indistinguishable from war, showing the impossibility of Ajax and his men easily transitioning to peace after a decade of violence. The stage is left bare except for a trail of blood that conjures the horrors that lie behind the curtain after Ajax’s enraged frenzy. Along with compressing the cast down to four, this simplicity causes the play’s focus to evolve from society and the divine into the deeply personal, both within the family and the individual.
With the interpretation using only the characters at the heart of the play, it denies the audience a resolution even in burial
Seton Pollock’s Ajax is a man of extremes, exploding into violent rages and swinging between laughter and screams as he vengefully tears through animals offstage. His impulsive behavior tragically contrasts with his growing hesitance and reflection as he resolves to end his life. This distancing himself from the war, even through death, becomes his only way away from his thoughtless carnage on the battlefield. Yet being covered in blood from the play’s beginning to its end continues to colour his entire life with violence, and even his most tender moments with his family leave them stained red.
Kerrie Anne Baker becomes a complete reversal of her earlier role as the proud, bloodthirsty Volumnia into the solitary critic of the world of violence in Ajax’s parnter Tekmassa. She shows absolute horror at the bloodshed that has destroyed her home, consumed her partner and threatens to engulf her daughter, yet maintains an iron will to stand up alone to the heavily armed men to protect her family. Fighting against tragedy yet ultimately forced to watch it unravel, her silent grief at the play’s conclusion is utterly heartbreaking. With both she and her daughter Eurysaka (played by Chenoa Williams) speaking their lines in Classical Arabic, the desperation of their position as civilians in a foreign war-camp becomes terrifyingly clear, with their only pillar of safety being a man determined to self-destruct. The combination of William’s young age and the modern update leads to absolutely chilling moments with the impact of seemingly archaic traditions revealed. While passing a shield onto a son can see more ceremonious in the traditional text, here the gifting of an assault rifle to a small girl barely its size is a terrifying and confronting look at the cycle of war taking hold at a young age. With Ajax’s rare displays of carefree happiness coming from playing mock war, it is an eerie look into Eurysaka’s future.
With the family acting as the core of the performance, Chad O’ Brian’s Odysseus acts as a restrained onlooker to their fragile domestic world and offers a brief insight into the cold, logical and detached world outside the chaos of the tent. Rather than a sly schemer, he is portrayed with a calmness that normalises the war around him – it is only Ajax’s outbursts and Tekmassa’s defiance that can crack his composure. Without the intimate ties that anchor even the volatile Ajax, his behaviour off the battlefield becomes hesitant and almost mechanical, especially in the play’s closing recreation of Ajax’s final actions.He offers an opposing reaction to war than Ajax that is somehow equally as disturbing.
With the interpretation using only the characters at the heart of the play, it denies the audience a resolution even in burial. Help may arrive and the family may survive, or they be doomed as outsiders in a war camp. Respect may be given to Ajax, or he may be left forgotten. And deaf to their suffering, the war will rage on.