Inspired by Sophocles tragedy Ajax, Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play updates the action to a modern-day warzone; the sand-covered stage naturally evokes Afghanistan.
Ajax is passed over for promotion, and wreaks revenge on what he believes to be army officers - actually a host of farm animals. Joe Dixon as Ajax arrives drenched in blood, moaning and bashing at his seemingly diseased head, but he has a powerful physical presence that conveys the former greatness of this mighty soldier, for whom individual honour is everything.
Wertenbaker's choppy text manages to be poetic, tonally true to its origins, while also injecting modern politics and crude barracks humour, drawing on interviews with real soldiers. Not all performances in David Mercatali's production quite meet the material; Gemma Chan’s underpowered goddess Athena, though watchably slinky, is given to over-articulating lines and peppy gestures.
But the modernisation works, opening up new resonances. Characters experience violent flashbacks, nightmares, visions and voices after witnessing the horrors of war, and Wertenbaker finds slippery overlap between an ancient world of manipulative gods and modern-day PTSD. Ajax may be led on his killing spree by Athena as punishment for immense personal pride – but to his squaddies, he's just exhibiting the familiar signs of a soldier that's “cracked up” under the pressure.
To 30 Nov; southwarkplayhouse.co.uk