The story of Gilgamesh is sometimes credited as the first work of literature. It is a myth of epic scale, encompassing gods, tyrants and an attempt to conquer death. But perhaps most apparent are the many parallels with the Old Testament, the most obvious of which is a world-wide flood caused by the wrath of the gods and survived by a man who built a boat. Suffice to say, there is fruitful ground for a modern theatrical interpretation.

Unfortunately, this production of Gilgamesh does not seem interested in these themes, opting instead for nothing more than an attempt at retelling a famous legend. If this is the sole scope of the production, it is comparatively tame. The plot itself allows for all manner of avant-garde interpretation, but at the very least, this vibrant story should be exciting.

The set is bare, bordered on two sides with a sheet painted with large hieroglyphic-like pictograms. It’s a good choice for the space, managing to conjure massive stone walls before the play begins. Sadly, the performers don’t manage to maintain this magic. Piers Beckley’s intricate poetic text calls for enormous characters to dominate the stage. But instead of gods and demons, great kings and crushing hubris, we experience actors who seem uncomfortable and rushed over the poetry of the language.

The is a notable exception in Toby Wynn-Davies – his primal, untamed Enkidu is a hunched-over bear of muscle and sinew. As the character becomes more civilised – a process which seems to entail having an uninterrupted week of sex, somehow resulting in gaining knowledge of the language – Enkidu becomes something totally different; a subtle, controlled but powerful man. Wynn-Davies rises to the size of the story he tells.

There are various notes that don’t help to untangle what Gilgamesh, as a play, is trying to achieve. Ray Shell’s cursory direction intends to present an interest in mortality. But this is only explored in the latter half of the story and only insofar as the story itself deals with Gilgamesh’s search for eternal life. If this is the central focus, it needs to be weaved more consistently into the production as a whole.  Beckley’s script intends to espouses the importance of reinterpreting historical narratives, but doesn’t convincingly offer up any thought as to why this particular narrative speaks to contemporary society.

As a show, it is easy to follow the story of Gilgamesh as told by this cast, and the production does arouse an interest in the original legend itself. The team meet their objective to retell this ancient story, but nothing more.

 

★★☆☆☆

To read more about Gilgamesh, which plays the White Bear Theatre until 21 October 2017, follow the theatre on Twitter (@WhiteBearTheatr) or visit the website – www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk