Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Borsada is a Greek with a gift

Greek tragedy: Peter Borsada as Ajax (centre) with the chorus - Rory Gill, Seb Salisbury, Olly Layzell, Jason Ho, Harry Jenkins, Sam Woodyatt


Bridge House Theatre, Warwick


SOPHOCLES, Aeschylus and Euripides are invariably mentioned in one breath. Yet there were a good many other tragic playwrights competing for – and winning prizes at that time; just as Aristophanes was just one of many comic poets.

However these are the three tragedians whose plays have survived, in such numbers as for us to be able to weigh up their achievement.

They are by no means of the same temperament. Aeschylus, the earliest, represents a severer morality moving forward to a reconciliatory one – almost like, say, the abolition of capital punishment. Euripides points far ahead to – or by the 410s reflects - a more complex, troubled, questioning society. Sophocles, in ways the most cautious and conservative, seems in many ways the sanest.

All three wrote an Electra play. It is Sophocles' that is usually seen as the masterpiece (as well as the source for Richard Strauss's opera). Yet the Electra story - the classical Hamlet, with its brutal avenging murder and matricide at the end, is as unforgiving as any.

Ajax, which lies early in Sophocles' output and thus nearer to Aeschylus, and which Warwick School Classical Society has just presented at an ideal venue for the plays, the projecting stage of the Bridge House Theatre, in a beautifully judged, careful, perceptive and evocative production directed by David Stephenson, is scarcely less unyielding.

It tells of little more than the preface to, preparation for and carrying through of the suicide of the Homeric hero Ajax (Peter Borsada), maddened by a vindictive Athene into slaughtering flocks and herds (believing them to be Agamemnon and his lackeys) following the (post-Iliad) awarding of the dead Achilles' arms to Odysseus. The last is an appalling slight to Ajax, who viewed himself (as others, including possibly Homer, saw him) as easily the Greeks' bravest champion.

In a way the story itself seems slight; but not so: as this intensely moving Warwick performance demonstrated, with its massive cyclorama Athene towering over the stage, its self-disciplined limiting to a blue and/or pink backdrop (Michael Ballard oversaw the lights), the kaleidoscopic shifting emphases of the characters advising and consoling Ajax to stave off the inevitable – with their finger in the dyke, so to speak – and above all the empathetic, rationalising chorus, this tragedy, like (say) Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound or Euripides' Alcestis, reveals Greek drama at its most refined, its most pared-down, its most bald and spare.

The ancillaries suggested to a fine, on the ball production even before it started. The printed programme's uncredited cast photos, imaginatively shot and laid out more neatly and stylishly than many a professional staging, were exemplary; so were other aspects of the programme, notably historical notes, neither too much nor too little (Melvin Cooley), with the inevitable but here well-chosen illustrative vase paintings. This was to be no mere laudable but schooly presentation; nothing pedestrian; but rather, something which took itself seriously as a theatrical undertaking, and hit the mark.

Peter Borsada gives a memorable and mature performance as Ajax

The set (Rachael Brown), unveiled from the start, looked professional too. A low hedge of reeds or brushwood, realistic, sturdy-looking yet in no way cramping the action, ran across stage like a hirsute nape of a neck. One recalls a similar restraint and simplicity working well for a similar subject, Tippett's King Priam. A plain, believable slightly rumpled but utterly apt-looking tent, a bit medicinal, something Saladin might have known, or a Hellenic equivalent of something out of Mash (and actually such tenting actually features on vase paintings), as if one could sense a ward full of Ajax's insomniac rantings, or splattered with his spurting blood. And not much else to the set, apart from the hostile Athene's almost brutalistic image, grotesquely towering above.

It was enough to set the scene for the brilliant Borsada's entry. Overpraising – though this was none - is rarely a help to youthful performers. But Borsada is ahead of the game: already as self-critical, scrupulous and mature a performer – and as gifted - as to merit treating as a professional. To all intents and purposes he is one: no mean feat for a boy at GCSE stage, the Upper Vth. I have already applauded the range and depth of Borsada's multilayered Posner in the Loft Theatre's The History Boys. Here he found yet more. This was a perceptive, and probing, performance.

True, both characters. Sophicles' and Bennett's, have Angst in droves. But the level of pain this Ajax evinced here, the maddened eyes, the battered walk, the sheer crumpling of the personality, seemed on a new level.

You could believe this man-boy, bloodied like some ghastly Expressionist outpouring, has just arrived from slaughtering a flock of sheep. Bloody-tunicked, Borsada looked, as Stephenson intended (presumably we owe it too to Costume Designer Judy Reaves), as if he had just escaped the abattoir: and as if he himself had narrowly avoided butchering.

Thus he was doubly a victim when he arrived onstage. Were Ajax not so inturned, so disarmed, so patently distressed, we might have feared he would turn on us next, and discharge a spear into Row J. The nervously trusting chorus clearly felt the same; but their instinctive sympathy rendered them brave and trusting as well.

This five-strong, likewise tunic-attired chorus team (Rory Gill leading off, Olly Layzell, Sam Woodyatt, Harry Jenkins, and the tenderly sympathetic Jason Ho) – it should have been six (Seb Salisbury was missing - so surely some late line-reallocation was needed)  acted as sensitively as they did attentively from start to finish. A visible feat of concentration. As so often with Attic Tragedy, they were the other, the balancing stars.

Chloe Wilson as Tecmessa, Ajax's hapless Trojan wife

How? Because of their differing, albeit meek personalities, which offset each other effectively. Because of their exemplary verse-speaking, largely impeccable: true, not so much as an ensemble (which was fine, not out of the ordinary); but one by one, with individual lines teased out by Stephenson from the main chorus – a device needing careful prudence and planning - in the most natural way imaginable (and these boys took to the art like ducks to water.) Because of their patent empathy, mixed with puzzlement and devotion.

And above all, most dazzlingly of all, because of the amazingly fine blocking – never predictable, and much of it wholly original: the lads huddled, arched, tense, relaxed, tightly enclosed, fusions of upstage and downstage facing; crafted like sculpture, and looking like blocks one had never quite seen elsewhere. This shaping, never gratuitous or approximate, was as much a visual feast as an artistic and directorial triumph.

The script which served these chorus boys so superbly, although also uncredited, was E. F. Watling's Penguin translation. Some five decades old, it seems today as bright as a button. Many of the Penguin play translations were scrupulously honest and tangibly more powerful for that. With these young voices this text, with its natural poetry, would have been a joy to listen to, even had there been no staging.  

The quite substantial if lesser roles were well taken, too, if more on a good ‘school play' level (Borsada is unmistakably in a class of his own). The baddies are more straightforward to pull off – Josh Heathcote's smug Agamemnon, not quite a Brian Cox, was suitably arrogant, Joel Othen-Lawson's Menelaus genuinely threatening, though both needed extra guidance on how to differentiate, accentuate and vary character (perhaps Sophocles' fault, more than the boys'). Ralph Davis was a stalwart, if stayed, Messenger.  Chloe Wilson as Tecmessa, Ajax's hapless Trojan wife, managed by her mere presence to convey the helplessness of slave alongside that of spouse, and did rather well.

But the leads who mattered were, first, Bryn Jones as not a vainglorious but  deferential Odysseus – Cooley's notes drew our attention to the wandering hero's vain  attempts at reconciliation with Ajax's ghost in the Odyssey's underworld scenes – who joins the team of those seeking to alleviate Ajax's anguish (albeit not by offering to give him the armour).

Bryn Jones is almost too gentle, too understanding, too philosophic a figure to get the right balance between warrior and reconciler. But Odysseus was above all wily – ‘polymētis' is his regular Homeric epithet; and Jones had wile and intelligence galore – enough to get him through the ten year's wandering that await Odysseus, and away from the clutches of Circe, Calypso and (sadly) Nausicaa. It is Jones, here, who will dictate the play's ending – the proper burial of Ajax, by convincing all that even one's enemy merits decent burial (a telling, if not barbed, allusion to the Patroclus-infatuated Achilles' gross maltreatment of Hector's body). 

Smart, then. But demure. Servant-like in demeanour, loyal and attentive, he seemed the sort of figure one would have liked for one's table-slave, appointments secretary, personal fag or study-mate. And thus the unexpected role of Odysseus in this play, the bridging and conciliatory, at the heart of Sophocles' intention, was brought out markedly well. Jones had detail, a quietly complex personality, and thus produced variety: this was a shy but involving, in its way rather deft performance.

Bryn Jones as the deferential Odysseus

More important still was Teucer, Ajax's half-brother (Elliott Grocock), more masculine and forceful than all of them (Sophocles' two kings, despite their incontinent, vociferous posturing, seem trivial and wet by comparison). Teucer (greatest of archers) is the one who strives to turn the clock back, or bend the bow back, by preventing Ajax from killing himself. His is the last ditch attempt.

And in the confidence, optimism, striving against the odds, disappointment, disillusion, and then recovering authority, Grocock too achieved a very full characterisation in a short time (Teucer only enters late, after the Messenger who announces him and before the brother monarchs appear). He has royalty and seniority mixed with youth and impetuousness. Grocock brought a lot to this staging.

But it was Borsada's Ajax on whom all hinged. One thing about seeing a Greek play staged by boys is that the youth is inescapable. Borsada and his promising companions are still 15? 16? On the cusp of 17?  It is not hard to sense that the Greek heroes in this story are scarcely that much older: Ajax, great warrior that he is, is conceivably in his early to mid twenties; Teucer and Odysseus likewise.

It tells. The immaturity of Ajax's miffed, humiliated gesture, the outpouring of passion and punctured pride, the Expressionist protest of the self-immolation (with its Kandinsky-like blood-red colouring), become more understandable if one realises these are still thug-like lads, scarcely as mature as school prefects.

The impact of Ajax's depression, and the ensuing self-delusion, are likewise remarkable pieces of psychology by Sophocles. How does one portray all this onstage, let alone in one's extreme youth? Answer: by being a Borsada. The fact that Peter Borsada could depict all this, in the compass of an Ajax lasting not much over an hour, and produce a positively explosive performance of a virtually Shakespearian lead role, is amazing. The fact is that, while no giant like Ajax, it would seem Borsada is an actor of unnerving gifts, epic stature and terrifying potential. 

Roderic Dunnett   

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