The Pit, London EC2
Opened 4 October, 2007

It's probably fair to say that nothing of artistic excellence has ever come out of a sandpit. Beach Boy-in-chief Brian Wilson's retreat into such a comforting play area has passed into legend as an emblem for his post-Pet Sounds crack-up, and Australian theatre company Uncle Semolina (& Friends) are similarly ill-advised in their attempts to summon up legend from a sandpit on stage. For they are bent on re-telling the 4000-year-old Sumerian tale of the god-king Gilgamesh and his struggles with mortality. It is apparently the hallmark of Uncle S (&F)'s work to approach their stagings through play, and as the audience enters, the three performers are already crouching in the pit, playing with toy figures, vehicles, a glockenspiel and so on. When the show proper begins (breaking periodically into rap, which is never a good sign with white performers), the towers of Gilgamesh's city of Uruk are made out of building bricks and he himself is symbolised by a six-inch-high action figure; other props are dug out of the sand during the course of the proceedings, which last around 70 minutes.

It's an interesting idea to look at a character's attempts to come to terms with death from the perspective of those who have barely begun their lives, playing infants. Interesting, but not what goes on here. The company are more inclined toward drawing implicit parallels between Gilgamesh and modern icons, not least political icons. More recent events in the Middle East are seldom far away, and although no explicit reference is made to them, there's a bit of crass Abu Ghraibery when Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. For every delightful moment, such as the opening line "A long time ago, when the world was boring..." or the Sumerian version of the Great Flood story being rendered as a ragged gospel number to the tune of "Oh Happy Day", there is another to wince at and a whole stretch that excites nothing much at all. I understand the company's arguments for adopting this kind of aesthetic, but I'm unconvinced that at root it's much more than a pretext for a lot of pratting about.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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