Sunday, March 3, 2019

Review: 'Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria' at The Crypt Gallery, 2nd March 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Catharsis Theatre's 'Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria ticks a lot of my boxes. As a history nerd it's nice to see a play that deals with non-British history, and as I don't know much about the Neo-Assyrian Empire it's a good opportunity to learn. Plus, I am always up for spending time in crypts - and the one under St Pancras Church is a long-term fave. Plus plus, I love immersive theatre.

So on paper, this is the show for me. I tend not to go and see shows on the weekend because it's nice to have a couple of nights off reviewing: but for something as promising looking as this I made an exception. Sadly, I wish I hadn't.

Let's get one thing out of the way for starters: despite billing itself as "an immersive theatre event", Ashurbanipal is not immersive theatre. Immersive theatre is pretty fuzzily defined, but the core concept is that it allows audiences to interact with the show and influence its progression. For example, For King And Country at CoLab Factory turned its audience into politicians and generals repelling a Nazi invasion, while Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man largely ditched structured drama in favour of audiences exploring a space and forming their own narratives.

By comparison, Ashurbanipal is a tightly scripted play that requires the audience to simply move between performance spaces to follow the action. As soon as I realised this some of the enthusiasm drained out of me: shows falsely billing themselves as immersive really annoys me. This is very clearly a promenade piece and Catharsis should bill it as such.

But enough about what this play isn't - what is it? We spend the majority of the two hour run time in the court of King Ashurbanipal (Laurence Varda), who is preoccupied with putting down a rebellion from his estranged brother Shammash-skum-ukin (John Lutula). As his military campaign wobbles he senses treachery in his court, with his wife Queen Libball-sharrat (Michal Banai) and his chief scholar Balasi (Wayne Wilson) potentially plotting against him.

It's interesting history, but that doesn't necessarily make it dramatically interesting. Much of the action feels sub-Shakespearian, with the court betrayals and power corrupting stuff feeling like bits of Macbeth and Hamlet have been mashed up together. There's nothing objectively wrong about that (after all, Shakespeare himself was notorious for it), but the writing here lacks the lyricism and poetry needed to bring this story to life.

In addition, setting this within a subterranean crypt doesn't particularly fit with the story. On one hand, I like the metatextual aspect of setting a play about ancient history underground in the foundations of a site of Christian worship, but the claustrophobic tunnels are at odds with the scope of the story and the sparse sets simply don't conjure up images of an opulent palace. 

That said, I do very much like subterranean spaces, so when the show became less than engaging I could at least occupy myself by admiring the elegant Victorian brickwork and reading the stacks of grave markers piled against the corners of the tunnels.

But, y'know, when your mind is wandering so far from the show you're watching that you're trying to work out how the masons managed to construct these perfect arches, something has gone very wrong. If you recently saw the British Museum's I Am Ashurbanipal exhibition and really wanted to see a play about it then go, but if you want an emotionally compelling narrative or an immersive experience then it's a hard avoid.

Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria is at the Crypt Gallery until March 3rd. Tickets here.

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