Sophocles was more than just a writer. In addition to being one of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have been preserved, he was a general – and his writing are said to reflect first-hand military experience.
In his time, Sophocles lived through the victories of the Persian wars and the disasters of the Peloponnesian War. There's a school of thought that many of his tragedies spoke in veiled ways about what we'd now call post-traumatic stress disorder and perhaps the plays helped Athenian soldiers reintegrate into regular life.
Indeed, in recent years, the Pentagon has funded a company called Theatre of War to stage Sophocles' plays Philoctetes and Ajax for service members who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Taking a cue from this fascinating work south of the border, Toronto theatre artists Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O'Connell have put together a double-bill based on those two plays about troubled heroes from the Trojan War. They're currently being staged for a five-day run in a small, makeshift theatre space with only 30 seats built within the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront.
In Little Iliad, Webber, playing himself, has a Skype conversation with an old childhood friend named Thom, played by Cox-O'Connell.
Thom, who is in Kingston and about to be deployed to Afghanistan, appears as a flickering Internet image projected on to small clay dolls that stand on a table next to Webber's laptop. Designed by Pierre-Antoine Lafon Simard, this ingenious video work is reminiscent of Quebec director Denis Marleau's experiments with mannequins and moving images; it speaks sombrely to the distance, physical and psychological, between the two friends, and between Canadian civilians and soldiers in general.
In their online conversation, Thom and Evan awkwardly attempt to tell the story of Philoctetes without consulting a script. (The premise is that Thom recently sent a copy of the play to Evan after reading it in a military magazine, and Evan wants them to create a theatre piece based on it together.)
In Sophocles' version of the legend from the lost Greek epic known as the Little Iliad, young Neoptolemus and Odysseus pay a visit the bitter, injured, exiled archer Philoctetes in order to steal his magic bow.
Neoptolemus has second thoughts, however, after seeing Philoctetes's suffering, and decides to convince him to bring his bow back to Troy, rather than take it from him.
As they try to remember the rudiments of the legend, Evan and Thom end up speaking in code about their own relationship. Evan does not want his friend to go to war, or at least wants to understand why he is volunteering to put himself in harm's way. In the end, however, their characters can't quite connect the way Neoptolemus and Philoctetes do; the deus ex machina of Sophocles' play does not arrive to bridge their differences.
This private conversation is made even more intimate for the audience by being heard directly into our ears through headphones attached to each of the seats. Little Iliad's simple but complex staging is a very successful match of form and content.
After a short intermission, audience members are given small, white masks for the second play of the evening, Ajax. It only then becomes clear that the black-box theatre we are in is actually built on top of the stage at the Enwave Theatre.
When the black curtains part, Cox-O'Connell and Webber are now in the Enwave's usual theatre seats. They are wearing togas, playing Athenians soldiers at the premiere of Sophocles' Ajax; we are playing the (silent) role of the chorus. Audience and actors have switched roles.
Ajax is about a warrior who turns on the military leaders he believes have betrayed him. After he fails pathetically in a revenge plot, he impales himself on his own sword. Unusually for a Greek tragedy, this self-inflicted violence takes place on stage, in full view.
Clay puppets are moved around by sound designer Chris Stanton to represent the actors in this Greek tragedy, but we only hear the play through the reactions of the two soldier-spectators who we learn fought under Sophocles in a disastrous battle. They both find personal resonances in the story their former general tells, but are unsure of how to digest its message.
The soldiers' banter is quite funny in portions – it's a bit like a Wayne and Shuster sketch – but the concept eventually becomes confusing. Webber and Cox-O'Connell drop their characters at one moment, then lurch into a series of crises that are poorly articulated. The production sinks into its own meta-theatrical stew. Unlike the delicate and delightful Little Iliad, Ajax needs work if it is to become anything more than an after-thought.
Ajax & Little Iliad
- Created and performed by Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O'Connell
- A World Stage production
- At the Enwave Theatre in Toronto
Ajax & Little Iliad run at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre until April 8 (Little Iliad moves to Vancouver’s Anderson Street Space next week, playing from April 11 to 14).