Four stars

Walking in to see Esarhaddon: The Substitute King, I was not sure what to expect, but was immediately struck by the attention to detail of the set – rich red velvets, purple and gold embossed thrones, and a black and gold starry backdrop created a very regal atmosphere. 

As the action commenced, I was drawn in by the formal metric structure. This facet of the play is explained by writer Winsom’s immaculate attention to detail in following the style of her tablet sources when composing the play. Indeed, immaculate attention is visible across the board – the props fit perfectly with the set design and the costume design is impeccable – right down to the queen’s regal hair.

The action starts off a little slow, but soon builds to a fevered momentum. The formal metre of the speech meshes with the grandeur of the set impressively, and even if the lengthier soliloquies felt at times a little too lengthy, they undeniably enhanced the chronicling of Esarhaddon’s pain as his court and kingdom crumble around him. This production is an undeniably powerful rendering of the tormented psyche – at the most intense and disconcerting moments in the drama, the audience is, tellingly, utterly silent.

The clever use of the oft-eerie (and thoroughly well-acted) Chorus adds to the sense that this play could have come straight out of the classical canon rather than being so spectacularly new. The Chorus are perfectly in sync. The astronomer’s highly formal, possibly affected drawl might reminds one of the wise old baboon in The Lion King – but it fits. All the actors are convincing, strong performers, and their on-point characterisation of their individual roles is made all the more commendable in light of the two week rehearsal schedule they were working to. Almost every character is subject to a couple of small verbal stumbles in the first half – crucially, not one person lets this phase them in the slightest, and it does not disrupt the dialogue.

Particularly powerful were the performances from Thomas Lodge as Esarhaddon himself, Rebecca Hannon as Naqia and Sarah Wright as the Exorcist. Lodge’s king acts out Esarhaddon’s deterioration impeccably convincingly and movingly, his voice cracking and breaking at moments of insurmountable emotion. Hannon’s queen is a force to be reckoned with throughout the play, capable of switching from proud reserve to spewing vitriol in a second.

The heightened climatic pace of the pivotal final scenes of the play is enhanced by the decision to have the Chorus rise and circle the tortured king.  It is hard not to notice, too, the carefully choreographed movements on stage – this performance has been immaculately and impressively assembled, all the more so when you consider  the limited time-frame the small production team were working with (and the team is small: as I leave the director is about to start cleaning up flour from the stage). Overall this production is powerful and transporting.