Oxford Has Put Heavy Metal, Mesopotamians, and Noh Theater Together at Last
A few weeks ago, ads started circulating around Oxford for a new play so strange that they actually inspired some folks to stop, cock their heads, and squint in befuddlement. The collective double take is an unusual response here. Like any college town, there’s an overrepresentation of chancy experimental artists roaming freely. And it’s possible that Oxford’s isolation and privilege, emboldened and protected by tradition, has created the platonic ideal of a college town—a pristine sanctuary for the socially disconnected, the pseudo-intellectually masturbatory, and the genuinely visionary alike. But even here, when an outfit calling itself the National Theater of Akkad decides to put on a play entitled Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria, concerning the life of a seventh-century B.C. king, written by an Assyriologist DPhil candidate, blocked in the style of Japanese Noh theater, and scored by a quantum physicist with an original heavy metal soundtrack drawing inspiration from Opeth, Porcupine Tree, and Tangerine Dream—people pay attention.
It’s also such a hodgepodge and a mouthful that we ought to break it down bit-by-bit to see why this is either a colossal and gratuitous collision of self-indulgences or a brave, new world of theater. Or something in between, but whatever, who wants nuance when we can just put academic endeavors on trial.
Ashurbanipal tells the story of a four-year period in the reign of the eponymous King of Assyria. During these years, Ashurbanipal (historically) engaged in a brutal war with his older brother, who’d been passed over for the throne and given the venerable city of Babylon instead, and who Ashurbanipal considered the most abominable man in Mesopotamia for unknown reasons. A wickedly smart ruler, Ashurbanipal used his knowledge to fuel his intense hatred, manipulating a society driven by a deep faith in omens by twisting those signs and in the process forcing the hands of his family and advisors into supporting a national bloodletting that eventually led to the decline and fall of Assyria.
At its core, it’s a Freudian meditation (brotherly competition and a strange relationship with a sister) on rage, manipulative intellect, and court intrigue. Playwright and cuneiform scholar Selena Wisnom crafted the story from historical documents—almost every line is derived from ancient Assyrian texts. It’s Wisnom’s attempt to draw a universal psychology out of the tantalizing gaps in the historical record and to shed new light on modern themes through an ancient venue.
Ashurbanipal is a work of historical fiction, a genre even Wisnom admits is thoroughly discredited for most viewers and writers for spending too much time justifying and explaining itself in clunky terms. More generally, it’s maligned for being too alien to communicate modern, applicable concepts. And if medieval knights risk being too alien, then the rift between audiences and an ancient king 99 percent of the world probably knows nothing about might be impassable.
If the subject matter runs the risk of inaccessibility, then director Thomas Stell’s choice to block it like Noh theater just seems like a big fuck-you of experimentalism to the audience. Stell adopted Noh’s heavy white face paint and sharp, stylized, long-held movements and mixed them with minimalist sets and costumes and sudden breaks between monotonous monologues and kinetic surrealist explosions. Stell has claimed outright that he wants his choices to make the characters distant, inhuman.
A choice quote from an interview with a local paper: “I don’t care. I don’t care whether it appeals to the casual theatergoer. That’s not what this is about. I’m not trying to make it an emotional journey.”
The soundtrack, composed by Andrew Garner and Tom Clucas, likewise feels like it should clash. Partially to heighten the unfamiliarity and partially just to keep the actors from breaking their surreal stillness and moving with the beat, Garner wrote in uncomfortable time signatures—like one passage in 15/8 with a slow 4/4 movement droning underneath. As Garner puts it, “Sometimes the music is there for the sake of the music rather than just to support the scene.”
For those wondering how such disparate elements coalesced, there’s no real artistic super-theory. The elements fell together in part for the sake of expediency and in part because, according to Wisnom, “neither Tom [Stell] or I realized the other was joking.”
The show was produced between Easter and mid-May, leaving little time to secure copyright permissions for pre-recorded songs. They nearly settled on a Phillip Glass rip-off score, as that’s all anyone in Oxford wants to write. One night, the two started joking about how the brutal, epic story needed an injection of death rock power. Then they agreed to try it out—first in jest, then, as it turned out, in life.
Despite all the slapdash, the crew went at it with obsessive academic fervor. Fellow Assyriologists helped them look at Assyrian inscriptions to see which stylized poses (for hybridization with Noh forms) corresponded to which emotions and actions. The musicians, who drew their inspiration from the same tablets’ depiction of Ashurbanipal’s flayed enemies being tossed off of walls, had Wisnom train their lead singer to pronounce Akkadian so he could growl monologues in the dead tongue incomprehensibly, but accurately, under the music.
By fate, these potentially gratuitous and self-indulgent elements coalesced into effective, engaging theater. The musicians believe their score imparts vitality and reveals the rage beneath the slow, deliberate action. Wisnom loves the Noh elements for forcing engagement and accentuating the actors’ subtle, tantalizing hints of emotion, restrained under ritual. And the outwardly curt and inhuman elements, she believes, reflect the alienation inherent in all tragedies. The end result is a world disconcerting and engaging enough that the team can shirk exposition, instructing the audience in omens, ritual, and Ashurbanipal’s hatred through gradual immersion.
Stell may have misjudged the ability of his student actors to tackle such idiosyncratic forms. While Ashurbanipal (Timothy Foot), his wife Libbali-Sharrat (Abigail Adams), and sister Sherua-Etirat (Claudia Freemantle) were deep and full, the rest of the cast was uneven at best. Stylized poses were held imperfectly (understandable given the muscle and practice required) or out of sync. And this same imprecision meant that the soundtrack could not flow seamlessly with the action onstage, making it feel more gratuitous and misplaced.
In the short term, the team hopes Ashurbanipal will become a local cult classic. In the long term, Wisnom’s working on “Esarhaddon” and “Sennacherib,” two plays on Ashurbanipal’s father and grandfather, respectively; Garner wants to release the soundtrack as a metal concept album; and Stell dreams of reviving the production at the Royal Opera.
Oxford’s an absurd incubator for the super-collision of self-indulgent and niche ideas. Often, these bouts of academic experimentation lead to crap—a recent attempt to adapt Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue into all-screaming, all-clawing immersion theater comes to mind. But in the case of Ashurbanipal, this freedom to indulge one’s deepest nerd without limitation or consequence has led to something promising, if rough. It’s certainly a vindication of the little adventure Garner, Stell, and Wisnom have been on for the past few weeks—especially of Wisnom’s amazing script—if not a case for indulging the ivory tower’s oddball experimentalism.
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