Open air theatre in a college garden is one of those ridiculously wonderful “Oxford” things that you just have to do in Trinity term. It’s up there with punting, croquet and Pimms. So, I was very excited to see Ajax, New College’s Greek play, in the Warden’s Garden.
Ajax is one of Sophocles earliest plays, translated from the Ancient Greek by the show’s own director David Raeburn. I am not a classicist and, on arrival, I was a little anxious, thinking that perhaps I should have looked up the synopsis beforehand, but, even without any prior knowledge of the Greek classics, I really enjoyed the show.
The play begins in the middle of a story. After the character Ajax has been passed over for the title of greatest warrior of Greece, he decides to kill his two fellow soldiers who did receive the honour. However, the goddess Athena, whom Ajax has angered with his arrogance, deludes Ajax into killing cattle and herdsmen instead of his enemy soldiers. Believing the cattle before him to be his enemies, Ajax unleashes bloody torture upon the animals, only to come to his senses and realise the awfulness of what he has done. His concubine and the mother of his child, Tecmessa, pleads with him not to abandon her when he realises what he has done, but Ajax wrestles with his shame, eventually committing suicide.
The production is incredibly minimalistic. As it’s in the Warden’s Garden (note: not actually in New College, but across the road on the other side of Queen’s Lane), there is almost no set, apart from the one small building in the garden, which is incorporated into the production as the hut from which Ajax first emerges, wild-eyed and covered in sheep’s blood. Complex period dress is substituted for modern clothing, with the Greek soldiers dressed in basic, camouflage army boiler suits, black Doc Martins and berets, and all chorus members simply in their own jeans, trainers and plain tops. As for the technical side? Well, there’s one lighting rig at the back, and there’s a bloke with a drum and a cymbal who provides the soundtrack. And yet, the cast manage to make plenty out of what they have, using the large space and the simplicity of the surroundings well; projecting their voices, and performing with their body language well enough so that it almost feels as if we are in an arena performance.
The title role of Ajax is played by Dom Hopkins-Powell, who excels in the sinister, bloodthirsty, sheep-murdering element of the role but flags a little in the emotional crescendo towards Ajax’s suicide. As Tecmessa Katherine Clifton gives a spirited and engaging performance, although at times she perhaps verges on overly-anguished. Particularly talented is Will Hardyman, who gives an energetic performance as Ajax’s half-brother Teucer, who dominates the second half of the play. The Chorus of five similarly invigorates the play with tender comedic moments, which make light of the drama unfolding, without detracting from it.
Although not a stand out production, and clearly limited by financial constraints, Ajax is definitely worth seeing, particularly if you’re interested in classical drama or have never seen a Greek play before. Tickets are £5, which is a bargain, and the setting of the Warden’s Garden is truly gorgeous, so I would recommend seeing the show before the run ends on the 3rd June.