Dr. Selena Wisnom (The Queen’s College, Oxford) was the recipient of one of this year’s ICS public engagement grants; the award helped to fund an immersive production of her new play about the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. Here she tells us more about the play.
I am standing in the crypt of St Pancras Church, which has been transformed into the throne room of Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria. It is a freezing night in 648 BC and the atmosphere is electric: the king is discussing a tense political situation with his advisors, and announces that he will ask the gods for advice by sacrificing a ram. Huddled around the walls, the audience watch as a group of actors carry in a man on their shoulders, stripped to the waist, twitching and terrified in animal incomprehension. They set him on an altar right in front of me and thrust his leg in my direction with the instruction ‘hold!’ As we the audience pin down the limbs of the sacrificial ram, the diviners begin reciting the ritual prayers and with a ray of light the priest standing next to me plunges in the knife. The ram’s limbs go limp and we stand back while the entrails are taken out and their meaning deciphered. The course of history is determined here.
This was my first glimpse of how the play would be staged at the dress rehearsal, experiencing it as the audience would for the first time. Ashurbanipal: the last great king of Assyria, is a play that I wrote based on historical sources, telling the story of Ashurbanipal’s disastrous war against his brother, the king of Babylon. The play dramatizes an event that was pivotal in Mesopotamian history, showing it through the lens of a deep-rooted family conflict. The plot pieces together the fragmentary cuneiform sources into a narrative, using dramatic license to bridge the gaps. The script is suffused with quotations from ancient texts so as to recreate the culture’s ways of thinking and figures of speech, with characters sometimes even speaking in their own words taken from letters and inscriptions. As I had explained to the director Justin Murray, I wrote the play with the aim of immersing the audience in the world of ancient Assyria so that they would learn about the period directly through the story without needing to know any of the background, since all the necessary information would be conveyed through the plot. Little did I know just how immersive this production of Ashurbanipal would become.
Immersive theatre is a new and popular form of drama which actively involves the audience. Instead of sitting and watching the stage from afar they are placed directly in the room as if they are also taking part in the action. Justin’s company Catharsis Theatre took the audience into Ashurbanipal’s palace so that they could walk the corridors of power themselves. The play began with an actress playing an Iraqi archaeologist, welcoming the audience to the archaeological site of Nineveh. As she begins to read from a tablet, the king’s chief astrologer walks out of the shadows and takes it from her hand, seamlessly transitioning into his monologue and transporting us back in time. As the scenes change the characters move from one room to another and the audience follow, but there are occasions when the action diverges and they must choose which character to follow while two scenes take place simultaneously. As one audience member commented, this highlights how we can never know everything that happened in history, and our understanding of events will always be incomplete. At the same time, each person has a different experience of the play depending on which path through it they choose, sympathising with different characters depending on which sides of the story they witness. The immersive format also made for some fun moments of audience participation, such as when the audience become servants of the palace, carrying torches and serving the king grapes, or bringing prisms to build the funeral pyre in Babylon, as well as participating in the electrifying ram sacrifice.
A cast of professional actors brought the story to life brilliantly. All were from BME backgrounds, many with personal links to the Middle East who were able to inject their own understanding into the play at the same time as deepening their engagement with their history. A major exhibition about Ashurbanipal was staged at the British Museum during the development period, and the museum generously gave us access on several occasions so that the cast and creative team could take direct inspiration from Assyrian artefacts. Rehearsals I attended became hours of Q&A as they sought to understand the historical context as authentically as possible, with an enthusiasm and dedication that was deeply affecting.
The play ran for six performances from 28th Feb – 3rd March 2019 and every show sold out. We are now planning to stage it again in larger venues and take it on tour around the country so that even more people can discover Ashurbanipal’s story. Thanks to support from the ICS public engagement fund we have been able to deliver a successful first phase of this project, which will bring this little-known but fascinating period of history to the wider audience it deserves. Ashurbanipal’s story is not over yet.
We would also like to thank The London Centre for the Ancient Near East and the University of Cambridge Arts and Humanities Impact Fund for further support for this project.
by Selena Wisnom
Image credits Rishi Rai