Slumped on his throne, dishevelled head raised and haunted eyes surveying the scene, Thomas Lodge creates a commanding portrait of a rapidly deteriorating monarch. As the newest addition to his court, exorcist Damqi, professes loyalty to Esarhaddon the audience are inducted into the ancient world of Assyria.
Following many of the conventions for classical tragedy, playwright Selena Wisnom’s background in Babylonian poetry lends an authenticity to the affair. Reviving characters from the annals of history, Wisnom reimagines the 680 – 669 BC saga of Esarhaddon and his mother Naqia. Bringing to the forefront Naqia’s unprecedented authority, the play emphasises the power of women in past as well in the present (due to the gender-blind casting of Sarah Wright as Damqi).
Through Damqi’s eyes we learn the ritual of the substitute king. An ordinary man must act as Esarhaddon for one hundred days before dying in his stead. Purportedly the only way to alleviate the true king’s suffering and save his kingdom, the sacrifice involved ought to be extremely emotive. Unfortunately the denouement is almost too obvious.
Despite the historically fascinating premise, the innumerable lengthy soliloquies are not quite enough to sustain interest. The Chorus remains rather detached and unconvincing whilst anachronistically lighting incense sticks with a box of Cook’s Matches.
However, Jacob Mercer’s disgruntled physician coupled with loyal scholar Balasi (Soham Bandyopadhyay) are a striking duo. Navigating the Assyrian Court, they remind the audience of the human warmth that lies beneath court politics as well as the disastrous ends that can befall a man riddled with jealousy.
Perhaps a few more slips than are forgivable and a conclusion that lacks dramatic power – Esarhaddon: The Substitute King leaves the audience slightly dissatisfied because it has such potential. The show’s saving grace is undoubtedly Lodge’s masterful portrayal of an honourable king, forsaken by the gods he worships. Esarhaddon’s physical deterioration is convincing and compelling, his mercy and desire to trust are fully-realised in a touching performance.
Maybe a little too niche and unintentionally alienating for the casual theatregoer, the play is nevertheless a fascinating example of classical tragic modes and a stimulating introduction to an otherwise obscure ancient Assyrian world.
Throughout the intrigue, family politics and elaborate rituals it is Esarhaddon who, rightly, commands the spotlight.
Esarhaddon: The Substitute King is playing at The Simpkins Lee Theatre, LMH, until 1st November