NEW YORK – Lord Byron is best known as a poet, but he also wrote plays before his untimely death at Missolonghi during the Greek War of Independence. Sardanapalus: A Tragedy was written in 1821 while Byron was living in Ravenna, Italy, and as he wrote to his publisher John Murray, it was “expressly written not for the theatre.” The play eventually was produced years after Byron’s death, first in France and then at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London’s West End.
Evening Crane Theatre presented Byron’s Sardanapalus at the Davenport Theatre on May 28. Directed by Michael Seebold with costume design by Storm Garner and Seebold, puppet design by Karen Zasloff and Garner, and a talented cast led by Christopher Ellis as Sardanapalus and Greek-Italian actress Flavia Sgoifo as Myrrha, the play drew the audience into the exotic world created by Byron.
His blank verse is not the easiest of dialogue to pronounce, but the actors managed to hold their own, conveying the emotional core of the play with skill, especially in the scenes between Ellis and Sgoifo.
“My object has been to dramatize like the Greeks (a modest phrase!) striking passages of history, as they did of history & mythology. You will find all this very unlike Shakespeare; and so much the better in one sense, for I look upon him to be the worst of models, though the most extraordinary of writers,” Byron wrote, quoted in Byron as Critic by Clement Tyson Goode.
Seebold, in his director’s note, focused on the political aspects of the play, asking, “How should the powerful govern?”
He pointed out that “the question looms ominously over tonight’s play and informs the central argument between Byron’s tragic king, Sardanapalus, and the queen’s quietly restless brother, Salemenes [played by Jake Minter], who in the face of a threatened empire will challenge his sovereign’s doctrine of pleasure and material luxury with a haunting prediction: that from hedonism shall come apathy (if only civic) and that from apathy shall come an end of days (if only secular).”
The references to Greece are many in the play. Sgoifo’s character is an “Ionian” and the worship of the Greek god of wine, Bacchus (Dionysus), is mentioned for bringing wine to the people. Sardanapalus himself says, “Pledge me to the Greek god,” when his brother-in-law criticizes the decadence all around him. In a poignant moment, performed with subtlety by Sgoifo as Myrrha, speaking about her beloved Sardanapalus, she “wished that he were Grecian.”
The play also included an eerie dream sequence with large puppets adding an uncanny element to the show which impressed the audience with its creativity and timeless themes. Many noted that they look forward to the next entertaining and thought-provoking production by Evening Crane Theatre. More information is available online at: www.eveningcrane.com.
Christopher Ellis as Sardanapalus
Flavia Sgoifo as Myrrha
Weronika Helena Wozniak as Pania / Zarina, Queen of Assyria
Natasha Walfall as Balea
Johnny Segalla as Sfero
Carlo Maria Velardi as Altada
Dishank Joshi as Zames
Michael Seebold as Beleses
Elizabeth Cardaropoli as Arbaces