I approached Ashurbanipal with not-a-little trepidation, duly warned that it wouldn’t in any way pander to tastes for gritty realism, being a medley of Classically-inspired tragedy about the eponymous Assyrian king, dance-like movement drawing from Japanese Noh Theatre and soundtrack splicing soporific sections with blasts of heavy metal. I have to say I came from the experience rather excited, even if the puzzle of why combine these particular disparate elements hadn’t been quite resolved.
Perhaps, “why” is unimportant; the play seems to ask implicitly to suspend questioning around those buzz-words “justification” and “relevance”. At its best, the stage becomes dreamscape which engages us intuitively. During a divining sequence where actors represent astrological motions and arcane powers, under flickering lights and a murmur of music, they seem to be transformed by their fluid yet mechanical movement, going at different speeds and in different shapes. Not an area of skin showed on stage, all covered by paint or clothing, contributing to this transformative effect.
Vocal tone was similarly transformed: the king (Timothy Foot) resonant dominance, the queen (Abigail Adams) intoned emotionalism. Indeed, these two deserve particular credit for entering especially effectively into the symbolist qualities of gesture and movement. Such heavy artifice and choreography meant, however, that even the slightest line hiccup or step out of rhythm became accentuated. I was also not entirely sure about the transitions in the play; lights would suddenly make blinding changes, aggressive heavy metal shake you out of all comfort. I’m all for being shaken out of comfort, but it sometimes felt gratuitous. I hasten to add, though, that the heavy metal tended to complement what passed on stage: with the choreography, it suggested, at once, controlling divinity and dark, grotesque human nature being its own downfall.
Despite the emphasis I’ve placed on the abstract qualities, there was certainly a narrative to follow, one of Ancient Assyria, that most rare of theatrical subjects. Nevertheless, the old familiar, indeed timeless, themes crop up: fate and free will, order and chaos, trust and betrayal… In fact, these big ideas seem gendered alongside the male/female conflicts the play centres on, not perhaps in a particularly original or progressive way – it ends up being, of course, feminine wiles that attempt to destabilise male order – but I suppose it gives unity. As script-writer, Selena Wisnom’s language ought to be praised for its lyricism and was really complemented by expressive choreography.
My suggestion: see Ashurbanipal, indeed as much for the potential it demonstrates for wider diversity in theatre. You may share my “not a little trepidation” – but is that not symptomatic of all the best drama?