‘Welcome to the house of no return.’ These are the words that greet the audience of the stunning new production Ishtar upon entering the theatre, which has been transformed into Irkalla, the odd, dreary underworld of Mesopotamian myth. Luckily, as the actors weave into a drone-like procession and begin to hum eerie ancient rites, we are quickly too immersed to think of leaving. Nothing if not entrancing, this new devised piece from the makers of the sold-out production Lady in the Sheets narrates the descent of Ishtar, Goddess of Love (Leela Jadhav), into ‘the place where dust quenches your thirst and the only food is clay.’
Without subtracting its solemn power, the directors and cast of Ishtar have turned the Babylonian underworld – a place that is neither punishment nor reward, simply a dustier and more tedious cousin of earth, not dissimilar to the Gladstone Link on a summer afternoon – into something spirited and fun. Partly, this is because Ishtar is a group-devised piece. Co-director Zad el Bacha informs me that her actors have been subjected to a series of gruelling martial arts-inspired bonding exercises, and their mysterious enjoyment of this process shines through in their performances. Namtar, vizier of Irkalla, becomes a mischievous puppeteer in the hands of El Portner, who skirts about the stage and occasionally plucks a few dark, stormy notes on a cello. Asushunamir, a ‘fearless demon born out of the time of love’ takes on a curious and affable persona when acted by Kitty Low.
Other members of the cast are quick to remind me of the difference between their real-life personalities and the characters they embody. Ereshkigal (Shreya Lakhani), the Dark Mourning Goddess of the Underworld, is really quite a cheery individual who, by her own admission, ‘finds it hard to keep a straight face.’ But when seated at her imperial throne, fanning an Indian harmonium with one hand, she takes on a look of such intense, repressed ire that any passing ox-driver would stop flagellating his beasts and turn the whip against himself. Kei Patrick, meanwhile, becomes a morose gatekeeper with a passion for rule-enforcing when she enters the underworld, despite being, she insists, a free-spirited 21st-century bohemian in this realm. Maryam Rimi brings intensely watchable pathos to the voyeuristic Ea, the Sky God.
The devisors of Ishtar have done an excellent job of glossing this 5,500-year-old myth with socio-political valences that will interest contemporary audiences, while resisting the temptation to be heavy-handed. Irkalla is a place of surveillance and heartlessness, a no-man’s-land that suggests the violence of contemporary borders and the horrors of cold bureaucracy. The stripping of Ishtar’s ‘dignity’ resembles the draconian exams immigrants must pass to gain sanctuary in a country they may find colourless and hard to navigate, much like this cryptic nether-world. Asushunamir, the fearless creature who can zip across metaphysical boundaries, is also ‘genderless.’ We might wonder what Nebuchadnezzar II, most proud and indomitable of the Babylonian kings, would have made of this skilfully reimagined myth of Ishtar. He probably would not have enjoyed it. But we must add that, given his reputation as a megalomaniacal ‘destroyer-of-nations’ with a perilously unstable sense of his own masculinity, this is probably a good thing.