Poignant, dark, and fun – Ishtar is proof that age does not matter, and that some stories are timeless.
Bringing to life of one of the oldest poems in the world from Ancient Mesopotamia, Ishtar tells the story of the eponymous Goddess of Love and War (Leela Jadhav) as she ventures into the underworld to see her sister Ereshkigal, the Mourning Goddess of the Underworld (Shreya Radhika). With the poem that the directors translated from the original Akkadian as a base, the piece grew from a series of ‘weird drama exercises’ that together create an impressively coherent narrative. Their result explores the violence of borders and celebrates the power of overcoming.
The hum of a vaja, a cello, and Akkadian chants greet the audience as they enter the Burton Taylor Studio. This is the Babylonian underworld – bleak, dark, dusty and far different from other conceptions of the underworld. This atmosphere is one of the show’s best features. The production team manage to take a familiar narrative and engage with uncommon themes through this less explored setting. The one scene not in the underworld – where Ea, the Sky-God (Maryam Rimi) watches and manipulates the movements a couple – breaks up the piece with some welcome and well-delivered narrator driven exposition. With just a gold tree and some beautiful embroideries that function as needed most strikingly as the doors to the underworld, the stage is quite a barren. This configuration allows the actors to remain at the centre, and when the props are used, they are used to great effect. The textile art alone took 120 hours of preparation work and it is obvious that much care has been put into the entire production.
There is some light audience participation but it never feels overbearing. The Gatekeeper of the Underworld (Kei Patrick) ushers people in, declaring ‘Please take a seat. You are now dead’. They are excellent as the Gatekeeper throughout, but their ability to engage with the audience without it being overbearing was appreciated by this reviewer, no fan of audience participation. There was one confusing point where it was unclear whether the audience was supposed to join in with a chant, but the scene would have worked well either way.
Whether the extended dialogue performed right up in someone’s face, or tender portrayals of intimacy, the evident actors’ comfort with each other is a testament to the success of the group-devised approach. Physicality is at the centre of the piece, and it is incredibly effective. In particular, Asushunamir, the Fearless Demon (Kitty Low) learning to move is a standout scene of physical expression. They manage to create such an endearing character in scant time, providing well-placed notes of levity and unguarded earnestness. Overall the whole cast create vivid and interesting characters, managing to balance the world-building and the intimate story well. At times in a few of the more intense scenes, it was a little difficult to follow some of the dialogue, but to the actors’ credit this never detracted from the flow of the narrative.
One scene in particular shows Ishtar’s greatest strength: its ability to carefully weave important messages about the horrors of borders into its narrative. When Ishtar first enters the underworld, she is stripped of her jewelry and ‘dignity’ at each gate. It is a somewhat difficult watch as she begs for her things while Namtar, Vizier of the Underworld (El Port) and the Gatekeeper show no remorse – made all the more effective by the swirling embroideries as the gates. Namtar, in particular, shines as the manipulator of the underworld, with their claims that they are just doing their job reflecting the violent apathy of workers in the modern day immigration industry. Another striking moment is when Asushunamir is cursed so that “the edges of places be [their] home” – the awful reality of many at the mercy of the UK’s immigration system, made particularly salient given the hunger strikes currently taking place in Yarl’s Wood in protest of the conditions of their detention.
Ishtar is a challenging production about some incredibly dark, pressing issues in modern Britain, and the wider world. It not only manages to explore these issues with care and respect but also weaves a life-affirming narrative around it – a timeless story of overcoming the darkest of times.