Next Wave: Gods with toys

Jonathan Marshall

Mark Tregonning, Gilgamesh

Mark Tregonning, Gilgamesh

Mark Tregonning, Gilgamesh

It is easy to think of the ancient Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh as a story about overgrown boys in possession of big toys and a dubious sense of masculine virility. Gilgamesh battles both men and epic beings with little compunction and constantly embarks upon apparently random quests. After meeting his companion Enkidu, Gilgamesh declares they should journey to the Cedar Forest and carve a gate for their city, though there is no real reason to engage in such a hazardous venture. The tale is a reminder that the classical gods were little different from mortals except in their degree of power. Demigods (Gilgamesh) and gods (the good/bad Shamash) were vain, arrogant, violent, lustful, compassionate and heroic, all in equal measure.

Gilgamesh is nonetheless an archetypal story whose coda involves the hero’s futile search for self-knowledge through his attempt to defy mortality and retribution. Despite Gilgamesh’s breathtaking feats and dogged endurance, even he and Enkidu find they must submit to the dictates of mortality and die.

Uncle Semolina and Friends is a new ensemble co-directed by Christian Leavesley and Phillip Rolfe. Their high energy, grime-encrusted adaptation of this tale is a cross between the nasty childishness of Jacques Le Coq’s interpretation of clown performance, and the pained, bodily perseverance and drama of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre. An audience of only 16 is locked inside a stained hulk of a shipping container along with 3 performers, an assortment of toys, some impressively battered, low-tech sound and lighting equipment and a ton or so of dirt. By the finale, the denizens of the play pit are shock-haired, battered, wild-eyed, panting and painted with great strokes of black sweat and soil.

The delivery of the text at times has a sense of enfolding poetry, which puts a halt to the succession of plastic trucks, action figures and aggressive, childish braggadocio which elsewhere dominates proceedings. Katherine Tonkin plays an ambiguously monstrous guide, her torso protruding from the centre of a roughly hung shabby curtain as she dangles over an obsessed, filthy Richard Pyros as Gilgamesh.

Images such as these, together with moments where the mysterious magic of the text truly breathed, were the strongest elements of the performance. The unrelenting machismo of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, smashing plastic figures together while block-razing thuds of electronic sound amplified their performance, tended to work against the more poetic motifs of the production. And as a study in masculinity, Gilgamesh has little to offer beyond the unsurprising revelation that some heroes, politicians and warriors are adolescent boys with too much power. Nevertheless, in its brutal, low-fi resolution and exhausting performance aesthetic, this was a true gem of the 2004 Next Wave Festival.

Uncle Semolina and Friends, Gilgamesh, co-directors, lighting and design Christian Leavesley, Phillip Rolfe; performers Richard Pyros, Mark Tregonning, Katherine Tonkin; 2004 Next Wave Festival; Federation Square Car Park, Melbourne, May 18-28

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. Onl

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004