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.