Review: Gilgamesh by Uncle Semolina (& friends)

The Studio, Sydney Opera House, 22nd November 2007

The work begins, appropriately enough, with an introduction: "A long time ago, when the world was boring..." As if to counteract this perceived boredom, Uncle Semolina (& friends) apply mountains of energy, enthusiasm, and oodles of brightly coloured toys.

Gilgamesh, or 'G' (Richard Pyros) is, we are told by narrator Katherine Tonkin, "one part man, and one part god", a despot and a "fucking arsehole". His strength and power mean that he can do whatever he wants, and so he does, killing, raping, fighting, building, ruling, and generally being bad news for those who he claims kingship over. Unlike more recent mythological figures such as Spiderman, with G's great power come no responsibility whatsoever. The caped action figure that is designated 'G' throws cars, rapes dolls, and prances about without a care in the world.
The performance takes place in a skeletal shipping container, filled with dirt and a motley collection of childrens' toys, kind of like a sand pit for adults, but filthy, like G himself. By the end of the show, the performers are covered in dirt, the residue of a very messy set of stories. Sitting isolated in the centre of The Studio's stage space, the container feels curiously distant, and despite the warmth and energy of the performers, the black moat between audience and artists is never overcome. I can well imagine that in a more intimate environment this would have been a very different experience, but in this context it was very difficult to become absorbed by the onstage antics. My experience of this work was that of watching others get carried away in playing a game that I could never quite be a part of.

G's oppressed people finally have their longstanding pleas for deliverance answered by one of a seemingly neverending pantheon of gods who appear and disappear throughout the tale. A wild man is made of mud and raised by animals, and after some distractions, does battle with G. Enkidu or 'E' (Mark Tregonning) fights G in one of the more entertaining sequences of the show, all mock and roll wrestling complete with fake falls, staged punches, and body slam leaps from imagined ropes. G and E seem unable to defeat each other, so instead they become best mates. Their combined mayhem knows no bounds, and they gleefully destroy forests, kill giants, disrespect gods and goddesses, and ultimately slay the bull of heaven. For this ultimate act of trespass, E is struck down by the gods, leaving G distraught, but still destructive. As neither of the protagonists were particularly nice guys, it's difficult to sympathise overly with his loss.

The most disappointing thing about this highly energetic production is that none of this messiness ends up adding up to very much, so when the novelty of parade of toys, game playing, and impromptu hip-hop routines wears thin, as it does about half way through what feels like a very long eighty minutes or so, there's nothing much else to replace this. There's the occasional promise of something more, such as G's obsessive philosophical turn during his quest for immortality when shocked into a state nearing the contemplative by the death of his one-time rival and now best buddy E, and various miscellaneous characters who appear, deliver potentially important pronouncements such as "To name is to know. To know is to own", and then vanish. At these moments, it appears as if there might be a more sustained reflection upon the nature of writing itself, a notion that the Gilgamesh stories might lend themselves to, given their staus as one of the earliest existent pieces of written language. But anything beyond promise remains elusive in this attempt at re-telling these messy surviving fragments of story. It looks great and is fun for a long time, but ultimately in my view there's little to reccomend this work beyond pleasures of play.

Photo: Tristram Kenton


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