A society that is no stranger to war can be, unavoidably, no stranger to the mental and emotional trauma it brings.
As it is for Australia now, so it was for Greece in the 5th century BCE.
In Sophocles’ telling of the tale, the warrior Ajax – encouraged by the goddess Athena – embarks on a bloody rampage through the army’s cattle herds after the armour of the dead Achilles is awarded to Odysseus.
When Ajax eventually comes to his senses, he is overwhelmed by shame.
Deaf to the pleas of his concubine Tecmessa, mother of his child Euysakis, Ajax takes his own life.
In this very condensed, partly bi-lingual (English and Arabic) telling of the story written and directed by Robert Johnson, Ajax (played here by Seton Pollock) is a modern day Australian soldier in the Middle East.
As in the original, which took place in the latter years of the Trojan Wars, he is mired in a long and confusing campaign whose end point has been lost. We encounter him drenched in blood at the moment he plunges into suicidal despair.
This nakedly staged 55-minute Burning House production presents us with a spectacle of mental torment, one that is at times quite difficult to watch.
Drenched in gore, the hulking Seton holds nothing back. He howls, he roars, he weeps. He displays the entrails of the beasts he has slaughtered. He grovels in the imaginary dirt.
His Ajax is convincingly a danger to himself and others, never more so than when he takes his young daughter (Leikny Middleton) into his bloody arms. His raging against the attempted ministrations of Tecmessa (Michelle Robertson) is no less charged.
By way of contrast, Chad O’Brien’s squared away Odysseus seems a beacon of order and stability – at least for a while.
Ajax’s death scene, one in which this traumatised man is stripped of all residual courage and honour, keeps us in an appalled grip as he repeatedly applies a pistol to his head, mouth and chest.
Johnson’s production is very simple. Lighting is basic yet effective but the sound design – a racket of wailing sirens, jet turbines and helicopter rotors – tends to overwhelm voices and the re-use of the same loop is obvious.
Ajax should be a tough watch and hard to listen to, but it shouldn’t be difficult to hear.