White Bear Theatre
From 10 October 2017 to 21 October 2017
Review by Howard Loxton
This is the tale of an ancient hero, the legendary king of Uruk, a city of Sumeria over 4,500 years ago. Retold many times, it is known from clay tablets that are probably the earliest epic poem that has come down to us. Piers Beckley has managed to condense its major elements into less than 90 minutes.
That can’t encompass the whole saga (and indeed what is performed has lost some of his text to fit it into a theatre’s schedule that presents two different shows on the same night).
Gilgamesh is thought to have been an historical ruler but the legendary hero who has defeated all the enemies of Uruk has a god as a father. “Of birth divine, a perfect man,” we are told, but his restless aggressiveness and his insistence that he should be the first to sleep with every new bride disturb his people. “None are as great as Gilgamesh and yet we cannot sleep!“ they cry. “His rants and long debauches sap our strength.”
His mother, the goddess Ninsun (a gold clad Sarah Lott), directs his energies elsewhere and tells him he will find a man to love and be loved and advised by: this is probably not only the earliest saga but the earliest gay romance too! After three years ruling together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out to take a tree from the cedar forest where the gods live, killing its guardian Humbaba (Nicola Blackman) and then facing Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, sent to punish Gilgamesh for rejecting the advances of goddess Ishtar.
They kill Gugalanna, but in revenge the gods take Enkidu’s life. This leads Gilgamesh to seek out Utnapishtim (the Sumerian version of Noah) in search of the secret or internal life and with ferryman Urshanabi pays a visit to the after world.
It is a story full of detail and symbolic meaning of which Beckley offers the dramatic highlights, fights, steamy sex, ritual and exotic images and it is told is poetic and heightened language that makes it easy to mix the hieratic and the natural.
Ethan Cheek’s setting is a simple hanging that suggests the walls of Uruk carved with the heads of the main protagonists. They aren’t in the style of Mesopotamian cultures and nor are Sophia Pardon’s colourful costumes but show a much more free image of the ancient and middle eastern.
There is a hint of Hollywood epic here, though presented in microcosm, and director Ray Shell’s vigorous production reflects that too. Confined in this small studio with its limited access, it offers key dramatic moments in close-up. Bared flesh, pattern-painted faces, colourful silks and Action Design’s sound and chiaroscuro lighting all add to an exotic atmosphere. There are few props: swords, twigs, some poles and whirling draperies, but they are used with imagination.
Once Gilgamesh’s rampaging has quietened down, Luke Trebilock’s long-haired Gilgamesh doesn’t show a great deal of development, but in Enkidu we see a wild man turned into a thinking, civilized being. A head-shaven, shambling figure, he’s at one with the animals until, seduced by sacred harlot Shamhat, he carries her human scent and the animals spurn him. Countess Alex Zapak is a stunning Shamhat, shedding her draperies as she offers herself first to the king and then this man-animal.
Toby Wynn-Davies, his muscles dusted with chalky earth, moving slowly as he learns human things, eyes always concentrating, isn’t a beautiful Enkidu but a gentle and powerful presence. He’s strong, though Gilgamesh beats him when they wrestle, and a stout comrade if it comes to a battle but he calms Gilgamesh and his bulk makes the King looks more vulnerable.
With so much going on, it is not always clear who some of the other characters are, gods or humans, but this multi-role-playing ensemble play with a conviction that drives the storytelling. It would be good to see this in a longer version, for the slower sections here are some of the best. That would give time to introduce its comic elements properly (they are the one thing that misfires).
Beckley, Shell and the company demonstrate that it doesn’t depend on scale to deliver an epic—and this is one that is full of dramatic surprises.