Review – Gilgamesh, Uncle Semolina (& friends), Barbican

Saturday 13 October 2007

Gilgamesh. It’s the oldest story in the world. You know how it goes: two-thirds god/one-third man meets wild man; two-thirds god/one-third man loses wild man. And so on. Oldest story in the book.

It is also claimed to be the oldest written story in the world: the “standard” Akkadian version (as everyone knows) consists of twelve tablets, was edited by Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 BC and 1000 BC and was found in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.

Phil remembers it as though it were yesterday and so eschewed the chance to see Melbourne-based theatre company Uncle Semolina (& friends) present their quirky take on Gilgamesh at The Barbican.

But Phil was curious: why on earth was Andrew so insistent on seeing this, not least given the chronic jet-lag which even now seems to prevent him from conducting even the simplest tasks such as zipping up his flies or shaving both sides of his face?

A lengthy inquisition revealed a hitherto untold history. Apparently when Andrew was even younger than he is now he went to university and in his first term it came to pass that he and his fellow “students” were called upon to put on a show around the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The details are hazy, but some investment in a delicious Cab Sauv paid off in spades when odd details such as “leg warmers” and “tabards” and “in the round” and “improvisation” spilled out – plus the revelation that the director would tell the cast on the night which parts they would play and that these would be changed again during the interval.

Now, the West End Whingers have seen many West End shows whose quality and cogency could only be explained by this approach but, even so, Phil stuck to his guns, dug his heels in and refused to budge.

So Andrew had to call up his erstwhile college buddies Helen and Allan and their now frighteningly adult offspring Mathilda, Delilah and Stanley to join him at The Barbican for a trip down memory lane.

Thankfully for the jet-lagged Andrew, there is a marvellous summary on US(&F)’s website which saved him the trouble of having to write anything down:

Gilgamesh is the story of a charismatic, arrogant and powerful ruler. His brutal domination inspires the gods to create an equal, Enkidu, to provide balance to the world. Gilgamesh and Enkidu form a powerful friendship and embark upon a series of reckless, sacrilegious adventures, for which Enkidu’s death becomes retribution. Haunted and distraught at his loss, Gilgamesh goes in search of immortality.

In Uncle Semolina (& friends) [wot? not apostrophe?] retelling 3 actors take to a 7 metre pit of dirt, and use an eclectic range of inspiration, from matchbox cars, to hip hop, to professional wrestling and Japanese body weather to build and disintegrate a kaleidoscope of complex worlds. Bodies are physical terrain for toy cars or lustful hands. A dirt pit is a playpen and a burial ground. A fusion of playtime and inner urban anxiety, Gilgamesh echoes with issues of masculinity, power, love and loss.

The original production for Australia’s national emerging artists’ festival, The Next Wave Festival, was produced inside a 40 foot shipping container. With the 20 person audience also crammed into the container, it was an intense and claustrophobic environment with the condensed sweat of the actors literally dripping from the ceiling.

For the Melbourne International Festival the show was translated to play inside a hulking dirt pit reminiscent of a river garbage barge. This version was played in a medium sized studio theatre.

Now, as one might imagine, watching people playing in a sandpit is a lot less interesting than actually playing in a sandpit.

But what made the evening so satisfying to Andrew was interesting to him was the quality of the post-show conversation. For instead of having to hear rambling stories about Phil seeing John Gielgud at the National in blah blah blah, there were some very interesting insights from his companions. For example:

  • Stanley (11) This was the first story ever so they set it in a sand pit and threw their toys out of the box. The parallels with Iran were brought home by the image of Saddam Hussein emerging from his hole in the desert.
  • Delilah (16) It was boyish and boisterous. They were doing the destructive things because they could. It was like the treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

And there were many more from Mathilda (18), Allan and Helen (ages withheld for reasons of dignity).

Andrew suddenly had an epiphany that his lack of skill when it comes to theatre criticism is entirely the fault of Phil and his lack of insight. Suddenly this week’s disappointing news that the Nobel Prize for literature had gone to Doris Lessing and not to the West End Whingers made more sense.


Following the extensive re-fit of The Barbican, Andrew was astonished to be greeted by a woman outside the main “entrance” whose role was to direct people to their destination.

She was quite charming but her exhortation to follow the route until you can’t go any further and then take any of the lifts to minus two and you’ll find The Pit turned out to be misleading as only two of the four lifts actually went to that level.

And – as illustrated below – even the directions to “all venues lifts and stairs” are misleading because the arrow is so big that you just can’t see it. Unless you’re taking a photograph of Allan, Mathilda, Helen, Stanley and Delilah.

The Wright Sutherlands at The Barbican


One Response to “Review – Gilgamesh, Uncle Semolina (& friends), Barbican”

  1. Sean Says:

    You should see Pure Gold at the Soho; there is constant cooking (eggs, toast, spag bol), but very little eating. The food is thrown about a bit at one point though. Not a bad play either (surprisingly thoughtful, I thought it might just be another gritty urban drama, which in a way it is of course). No comment on Gilgamesh apart from: How the hell was that about the current Iraq war (see the programme notes)? Was Saddam or Bush Gilgamesh (how could Bush possibly be worse than Saddam!), the whistled the star spangled banner! Just because the play is set in ancient Iraq shouldn’t automatically lead to this contemporary resonance nonsense.

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