Saturday, 2 March 2019

Theatre Review: Ashurbanipal, the Last Great King of Assyria

How did you spend your Saturday afternoon? Me? I spent it wandering around the freezing crypt of a church on the Euston Road with Ashurbanipal, the Last Great King of Assyria. For such is the glamorous and more than occasionally odd life of a theatre blogger. 

 Melissa Taydon and John Lutula in action

In case you’d not guessed, we’re talking site specific immersive theatre here. Specifically, Catharsis Theatre’s new take on the apparently very of the moment Assyrian King (I missed the British Museum exhibition on him, but I’m told it was good). Catharsis is a theatre company I’m officially prepared to declare myself a fan of. Long time readers will recall I really enjoyed their hour long Complete Greek Tragedies and I enjoyed my time with Ashurbanipal even more.

The issue I have, writing this at 10:29pm on Saturday 2nd March (on a train, iPad precariously balanced on a table consisting of my knees and backpack, as is my usual style), is that you have literally one (1) more opportunity to see this show before it closes. So let’s cut to the chase shall we?

I can imagine that it’s quite difficult to do immersive theatre on a budget, but that’s exactly what Catharsis have done so effectively here. There’s nothing flashy about this experience (I’m avoiding the word production deliberately, because that’s not what it is): few props, few costumes, a tiny cast, a tiny venue and a tiny crew. But everything there is totally works and creates something atmospheric and totally compelling. Everything is earning its keep to create some really gorgeous storytelling.

And let’s be honest, this is not a well known story (British Museum exhibitions aside). It is a story that an audience proactively needs to be told; which is to say there is a lot of exposition in L S Wisnom’s script but for once I actually don’t want to complain about that. It’s well written exposition, heavy on contemporary detail and light on British Museum exhibition captions. The fact that it’s structured with a modern day narrator to pop up and hold the audience’s collective hand at various key points also helps. Anyway, the show can take it. The exposition, the story, is a story told so well.

There’s a 50/50 split on where credit needs to go for that: 50% to the cast and 50% to the creatives. The cast are clearly so invested in this piece and chuck everything they have at it. All of them are excellent: Melissa Taydon as a comforting modern day narrator and the titular King’s kick ass scheming sister (her scenes were my favourite), Wayne Wilson as the earnest, wise and ignored scholar (my second favourite), Laurence Varda as a suitably threatening Ashurbanipal, Michal Banal doubling up as the wronged queen and treacherous vizier, and John Lutula noble and stubborn as Ashurbanipal’s brother and rival king (and also a sacrificial ram, in one of the more random credits I suspect he’ll ever get).

Director Justin Murray (on for one of the main characters, the Chief Eunuch, at the moment on top of, y‘know, directing an immersive theatrical experience in a fucking crypt - the stress!) and his team are no less invested and deserve no less credit. The use of the space is great and dynamic, the building almost becoming a character in its own right (even if I did fall into and/or over pot plants at least twice). Hakan Hafizoglu’s lighting and Davide Vox’s sound combine to supremely atmospheric effect. The sound in particular is so spooky. Production/stage managers Victoria Jones and Charlotte Potter do brilliant things moving everyone (themselves included) around safely and in total alignment with the story.

I am such a fan of this show and of this company. If you can get to Ashurbanipal, the Last Great King of Assyria tomorrow then please do. But either way, keep an eye out for whatever Catharsis do next.

Ashurbanipal is on at The Crypt Gallery until March 3rd. Tickets and more info is online at

My ticket for this one was kindly provided by Catharsis.

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