Ajax and Little Iliad – Review by Emily Elphinstone
One of the best things about the Fringe festival is the opportunity to go to more immersive shows, where you don’t just get a play, but an experience; and from the moment you are shown into the theatre through the bowels of the Abbey, Ajax and Little Iliad does just that. It’s a casual start, with the lead Evan (Webber), introducing the rest of the company and telling us ‘we’ll be ready to begin when ‘Sweet Virginia’ finishes playing.’ Often metatheatrical performances can sacrifice emotional resonance for style, but here the awareness is an integral part of the atmosphere. Wearing headphones, we can hear each breath and crack in the voice, creating a great sense of intimacy.
Being made aware of the artifice makes the action that follows all the more real; and Webber and Frank Cox-O’Connell draw the audience in to create a sense that we’re witnessing a once off.
On the surface Ajax and Little Iliad is about war, about people’s feelings toward war and about friendship. The first part of the show, Little Iliad, concerns a Skype conversation between two old friends, now living very different lives: One is a soldier awaiting deployment to Afghanistan (Cox- O’Connell, who is seen only as a projection on a miniature modelling clay body), the other (Webber) a theatre-maker in Toronto. Together they retell the story of ‘Philoctetes’, from the lost Homeric tale of ‘Little Iliad’. Philoctetes was a prized archer with a magic bow, left behind on a desert island by the Greeks on their way to the Trojan wars, following a snake bite. After 10 years, Ulysses and Pyrrhus return to see him; primarily to get his bow, with or without its owner. This becomes a battle of words, debating War and Patriotism; in which the contemporary action echoes the Greek tale.
This may sound hugely political, but it is more about the individual than the state, and about the choices we make in life; and the rawness of the presentation makes it all the more moving. The show’s second part, Ajax, sees two soldiers returning from war watching the latest production from their General, Sophocles; waiting to hear what it will tell them about war. What they see on stage, represented by small clay figures, is interpreted by them, and we hear the action of the play only in their reactions to it. Once again, brilliant choices have been made with staging; but in Ajax some of the more deliberate gags, and the more ‘theatrical’ feel (taking the action back to Ancient Greece and dressing them in nifty togas); distracted from the otherwise powerful script.
Ajax and Little Iliad is a brilliantly original show that is well worth a watch. There may have been moments which tried too hard; but overall the attention to detail in staging and the sense of character in the approach to these details, more than supported the substance within.