Whatever can be said about its lack of polish, there’s no denying that Ajax440 is clever. In Henry St Leger-Davey’s inimitable adaptation, the video-game age has taken hold of Sophocles’ classic and spewed it out in a late-night, caffeine-fuelled binge. Its mighty warriors become ‘game vloggers’ (whatever they are), its goddesses become characters in a fictional world, and its eponymous hero becomes none other than Ian, a cold, twisted addict playing under the name Ajax440.
There’s more in common between digital gaming and theatre than might initially be thought: the suspension of disbelief, the entry into a world unlike our own, the feeling that everything is unravelling before us. With many more theatre companies now embracing the ‘immersive’ or ‘interactive’ label – Punchdrunk recently did a collaboration with Playstation – the distinction is even becoming blurred. And so, just as Ian navigates his way through the game, we are forced to play along with him, examining the choices he makes as, eventually, our empathy begins to wane.
Perhaps this is what makes the tragedy so all-consuming. It’s not perfect, but it’s testament to the ultimate power of the writing in this production that what starts as limp and soulless is by the end brutally sinister and chilling.
In particular, some of the scenes toward the start felt a little more like a redacted, translated version of the original – think the Reduced Shakespeare Company – than a raw piece of theatre. But as the pace picks up we’re fast absorbed into the world which Ian has constructed for himself.
St Leger’s Ian is a Sophoclean hero in all respects: stubborn, narrow-minded, and resistant to change. His misogyny is a particularly ingenious aspect of the play: at once pointing at the grotesque sexism of the gaming community, and tragically revealing our hero’s blindness. Joe Spence’s hunched, drawling Ian brilliantly brings out his inner pain as well as his ugly obsessiveness.
I would imagine that playing a virtual character poses something of a challenge, but Laura Waldren more than rises to it, coming across as suitably single-minded and manipulative, but without showing too much humanity. Alice Carlill as the despairing Teucer also stands out, but aside from the core cast of three, the rest of the characters did tend to feel a little superfluous. Which is a shame, because they were acted superbly: Rose Reade as Ian’s mother, and Toby Marlow as Oddie especially come to mind here.
The play is at its most effective when we’re dumped back into Ian’s sad world of addiction and solitude. The conflicting choices of the main characters are played out superbly – Ian between his virtual and his real life, and Teucer between Ian and her girlfriend Amy – and such is the intelligence of the writing that by the end we start to feel as if it is reality which is impinging upon the game, and not the other way around.
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Ajax440 is on at the Corpus Playrom, 7pm until Saturday 31st. Get your tickets online at https://www.corpusplayroom.com/whats-on/drama/ajax440.aspx