Ashurbanipal

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Ashurbanipal, to be staged at LMH in 4th week, is a dramatisation of the decay of the ancient civilization of Assyria, under the king Ashurbanipal. Selena Wisnom, a DPhil student in Cuneiform Studies, is an expert in the Assyrian civilization and is incorporating ancient texts into the play for the highest pos­sible historical accuracy. The lyrical dialogues replicate classical tragedies, and the play’s structure follows the classical rules. This pro­duction, however, takes the classical tragedy elements and overlays them with modern sur­realism, making it a unique venture onto the Oxford drama scene. Selena is the first person since Kaiser Wilhelm II to attempt a dramatic representation of the period.

 Ashurbanipal is accentuated by very eye-catching choreography. In one scene the king’s sister, while counseling the king, eats grapes from a plate, with a regular, angular and styl­ized arm gesture picking up grapes one by one as she talks. The actors’ every movement across the stage is stilted and mechanic. Tom Stell, the director, tells me the inspiration for the actors’ mechanized gestures comes from ancient As­syrian friezes depicting people’s movements, in two dimensions – the aim for Ashurbanipal is to reenact these friezes on stage, producing the effect for the audience of watching shadow puppets on stage.

The actors’ heavy black and white makeup will accentuate the silhouette vision, and their monochrome costumes, including gloves so that no inch of skin is visible, add to the sur­realism and the distance felt between the au­dience and the statuesque characters on stage. The soundtrack to the production is perhaps the most surprising element: the lyrical script and stylized movement are overlaid with bursts of student-composed heavy metal. The heavy metal ties into Tom’s vision of a “height­ened grotesque, dark and a bit camp. Heavy metal is so out that it doesn’t take itself seri­ously”.

 Tom aims to put different things together to “make Ashurbanipal its own world”. He points out the attachment, in the Oxford dra­ma scene, of having plays in a specific time pe­riod and setting. The aim with Ashurbanipal is to break with this; Selena agrees with him that a play “doesn’t have to be relevant to be inter­esting. Stuff should be fun, it doesn’t have to be useful.”

The obscurity of Ashurbanipal’s subject mat­ter shouldn’t discourage you from going to watch it. With its unique mix of surrealism, lyrical poetry and a classical tragic storyline-punctuated by crashes of heavy metal- Ashur­banipal is sure to surprise and entertain.

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