You might remember the play Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria, put on at the Simpkins Lee theatre last year. The play was the first of a trilogy, written by Selena Wisnom, an Assyriologist (who has just handed in a PHD in Assyriology) and this week sees the production of the second, Esarhaddon; The Substitute King, which follows the king Esarhaddon in his attempts to keep control when everything around him is spiralling out of it.
The two plays will become a trilogy, and Selena is currently working on Sennacherib; interestingly, the trilogy is working backwards through the last three kings of Assyria. I email Selena to ask why. “Rather than showing these important events in the order they happen, going back through time is like digging into the psyche. It reflects the process of investigation and the revelations come in a more interesting way, and are more unexpected. It’s a more interesting narrative technique.”
When I met the director, Lucy Wood, the first thing I wanted to know was just what happens when an expert in an obscure line of study sets a play in the world she knows so well. Is this historical fiction, or something more like historical reconstruction?
“It’s historical fiction in that she’s turned it into a play, but a lot of it is taken from directly from old tablets, a lot of the lines are taken from the records which she still has available to her, so it’s really interesting in the way it’s written. That was the first thing that made be really interested in it.”
I can’t imagine what that would even sound like, so I ask how ancient Assyrian tablet-speech (very impressively, translated by the writer) sounds on stage.
“She’s been very careful about keeping it in the metre that it would have originally been spoken in. The tablets, which are usually reports, are a very formal way of speaking. It looks like blank verse. It’s very Jacobean in ways, because of that structure to the line.”
More impressively still, the translated passages do not appear at odds with the rest of the play, in fact, Lucy tells me that you can’t tell the difference between original text and new composition. “I’ve read it over and over again and I still can’t tell where the joins are. She’s been very careful about reconstructing what they’re missing in terms of the remaining artefacts and records.”
It’s clear that this a fairly unique venture. It’s the ultimate new writing, with absolutely no precedent, and Lucy clearly enjoys this freedom. “It’s wonderful and exciting to work on something no one’s ever done before. All the other plays I’ve directed have been fairly established, so, to be able to do something and really play around with it and bring your own ideas to it has been very very exciting.”
The play is also free from the pitfalls which usually haunt new writing. “You see that a lot of the new writing in Oxford feels a bit samey and self indulgent. You know, about people with troubled parents or wives or girlfriends who say fuck seven times a scene just to be edgy.” Esarhaddon is obviously different, a more mature new play, maybe somewhat helped by the fact it’s not written by an undergraduate.
There’s still one thing I want to clear up; how obviously is this ancient Assyria when we watch it? Apparently the cast have lost count of the number of sheep they’ve sacrificed. Lucy, reading Classics and Oriental Studies, brings her own experience to this; she sees her degree as focused on things that are either far away and new, or here but in the past, and throughout, everyone faces the same problems. “The culture that springs up around them can be different, along with the ways of coping and theories for explaining what’s going on, but the problems, the essential problems, don’t really change across time and place.”
“We don’t very often hear about these times and places and people, it’s a very unique story, but at the end of the day everyone’s human, and whether we’re in ancient Assyria or modern oxford, there are still human relationships. There are still people who fall in love and have their hearts broken, still people who fall out, who go mad, who are driven mad by the stresses of ruling, and people who are fighting to take power from one another.”
Esarhaddon, only the second play ever (after the first in the series), to be set in ancient Assyria, and written in a brilliantly new style, weaving together old and new, promises to bring out, just as in any good drama, the same themes that are relevant to human existence today. This is radical new writing, and I for one am certainly going to be in the audience.