A theatrical aesthetic is a difficult thing. Sometimes it will improve a production, bringing light and clarity to the story’s key themes and ideas. On the other hand, it can weaken and possibly overpower the play. Ashurbanipal currently seems in danger of falling into the latter category.
Director and designer Thomas Stell is knowledgeable in and dedicated to his chosen style, which is based on traditional Japanese Noh theatre. This was indicated by the rehearsals given over just to practicing movement, ensuring that the cast’s actions are precise. However, these actions often added little to the story, which suggests that Stell prioritises the ‘look’ of the production over the play itself.
There were moments when style and script came together: a scene in which Ashurbanipal, smoking, is the only moving character on stage, accentuated his power and position as the centre of his land. This was a strong moment in Stell’s piece, which was unfortunately marked out by the weaker moments around it.
The cast all capably provided the unemotional, stylised quality Stell desires, but the most successful performances managed to infuse this style with a naturalistic emotion. Rebecca Daley’s rising anger at her King formed one of the highlights of this preview; and Abigail
Adam’s Queen of Assyria invested the form with a quiet determination and intensity that created a gripping performance. The stand-out is Timothy Foot as Ashurbanipal, who embraced the play’s stylised formality with confidence and a superbly commanding voice, even when hidden behind a mask.
The actors, with the exception of Foot, were characterised by a general sense of hesitancy. Though this may be the result of preview nerves and limited rehearsal time, both of which should be solved when the production opens in 4th week, it was occasionally easy to confuse hesitancy and the intended stiffness.
In a press preview it’s difficult to get a grasp of the overall production, and the absence of props and costumes was particularly notable here, so the finished production will probably look and behave very differently. However, Stell must be careful not to let the production’s aesthetic run wild at the expense of the story.
Ashurbanipal will run from 15th-18th May (Wednesday-Saturday of 4th Week) in the Simpkins Lee Theatre, starting at 7.30pm each evening, with a 14:30pm matinee performance on Saturday. Tickets are available from £5.
PHOTO/ Trudy Lynn