Ashurbanipal. Not a name familiar to most. Excepting the rapid Google searches and Wikipedia-skimming in the run-up to this interview, it was new to me too. But last Wednesday evening, the Turl Street Kitchen’s candles illuminated more than just casual drinkers: I met Selena Wisnom and Thomas Stell, the playwright and director behind a new production based upon the life of this old, obscure figure – and discovered more than I could possibly have hoped for.
To begin at the beginning: who? What? Why? Well, explains Selena, Ashurbanipal was the last great king of Assyria. “Great as in the last one who’d done anything interesting”, that is. He was a man of battle, for sure: the play details a bloody conflict between the protagonist and his estranged brother; to call it a revenge tragedy wouldn’t be far off the mark. But if you’re thinking along the lines of Hamlet or Oedipus – well, you’d better stop. Hamlet and Oedipus don’t have heavy-metal soundtracks, for one thing.
That one might need clarification, and Tom is only too eager to chart the vision: “The original idea was to have a sort of masturbatory, Philip Glass type soundtrack, which just wasn’t going to happen. Well, it might have done actually, but it would have been shit.” Fair enough. But an original score of heavy metal? Just a flash of inspiration, Tom explains. And the team liked it; Selena observes that it was this innovation that really brought the play to life, in fact – so it stuck.
Soon, however, Tom begins to talk about his many directorial influences from the classical Japanese noh tradition within theatre, and the inevitable question arises: isn’t there a bit of a risk here? Aren’t the audience likely to feel alienated, even bemused, by such a heady blend of cultures? Tom is quick off the mark again, and provocative with it: “I don’t care. I don’t care whether it appeals to the casual theatregoer. That’s not what this is about. I’m not trying to make it an emotional journey.”
Selena points out that this doesn’t mean it won’t appeal – quite the contrary: the play ought to attract “everyone – from academic Assyriologists, to ‘metalheads’, to anyone who simply likes a good story.” But it’s undeniable that some of its elements sound incongruous on paper: do we detect a deliberate attempt to shock, or incite controversy? “Provocative sounds petty,” says Tom, “but there are elements in it that kind of say ‘fuck you’, and I kind of like that. People might think: “the fuck was that? What were they smoking when they came up with that idea?” But, you know, it’s not harrowing”. And it’s not as if the original material is dull: “the [historical] sources themselves are absurd, surreal!” remarks Selena. The religions of the Gilgamesh epic (quoted at length in the script) and other Akkadian and Sumerian narratives are filled with the kind of mythology that Christianity discarded for being too outlandish. Perhaps Ashurbanipal isn’t being so controversial in choosing to reject realism.
But let’s hear more about our protagonist. A bloodthirsty king: do we empathise? Should we? Well, kind of, and kind of not, the pair explain. Tom returns to the idea that “theatrical alienation is good”. We know a little of Ashurbanipal’s character from the 7th century cuneiform tablets in scholarly possession, as propagandistic as they may be: the king speaks of slaughtering his enemies in graphic detail, of grinding their bones, and – persistently – of his unforgivably “faithless, treacherous” brother. The historical details don’t leave much to the imagination, but what’s missing is cause and effect. This, Selena explains, we should expect from the narrative. Like all the best storytellers, she’s just filling in the gaps that history forgot.
A question about the venue: is there anything special about the Simpkins Lee? What were the team looking for, when scouting the novel Ashurbanipal’s location? Well, it might not have been the first choice, Tom admits, but the SL has “a plasticity to it – it’s a postmodern toy opera house, with all this glowing white… Yes, “postmodern toy opera house”, make sure that goes in”. The three of us laugh, but he makes a valid point: to go overboard on the staging or venue would surely be a reach too far. Whatever else we can deduce, it is clear that Ashurbanipal is a play of tremendous complexity.
And we come to the end: where next for the intrepid team? Selena confides that the Ashurbanipal script might not be the last of its kind: the king’s father and grandfather also have stories to tell. She mentions releasing the soundtrack as a concept album; Tom says something about a plainchant Gothic mass interspersed with death metal – a metal musical about the life of Baudelaire. It’s hard to tell what’s in jest and what could really happen. Selena and Tom have ambition in spades. If the revelations so far are anything to go by, Ashurbanipal is certainly going to be one to watch.
PHOTO / Thomas Stell