Stage Door Review 2023

King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild

Sunday, July 30, 2023


by Ahmed Moneka, Jesse LaVercombe and Seth Bockley, directed by Seth Bockley

TRIA Theatre and Soulpepper Theatre, Young Centre, Toronto

July 27-August 6, 2023

Gilgamesh: “Enkidu, my friend whom I love, has turned to clay!

Am I not like him! Will I lie down never to get up again!” (Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet X)

King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild is a theatre/musical concert hybrid that makes for an entertaining evening as long as you don’t think about it too closely. The music from the band Moneka Arabic Jazz under Ahmed Moneka is joyous and exciting and Moneka’s singing and acting are impressive. The premise of the whole work, though, is dodgy and unconvincing.

The genesis of the piece was the real-life friendship that formed between Ahmed Moneka, a Muslim refugee from Iraq in Canada, and Jesse LaVercombe, a Jewish American actor from Minnesota who remained in Canada. It somehow occurred to them that the unique friendship they had because of their being from such different backgrounds was like that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the most ancient extant poem in the world.

The source of the epic are five Sumerian poems about the King of Uruk (c. 2100BC). They were first combined into a single epic by Sîn-lēqi-unninni sometime between 1300BC and 1000BC. Only two-thirds of this version written in cuneiform on twelve tablets survive. The poem itself is divided into two halves. The first half concerns Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh, two-thirds a god, was the King of Uruk (a city which flourished in the 27th century BC) and acted as a tyrant.

To stop Gilgamesh’s oppression of the people of Uruk, the gods created the man Enkidu. Enkidu began as an animal but after having sex with the sacred prostitute Shamhat, he loses his animal nature and becomes a human being. He challenges Gilgamesh to a test of strength and loses, but Gilgamesh finds he does not want to kill Enkidu. Instead, the two become fast friends.

Together they go on a quest to slay Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, so that Gilgamesh can use the cedar to expand Uruk to become an even greater city. Ishtar, however, goddess of love and death, sends the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. He is unhurt but the gods sentence Enkidu and, being mortal, he dies.

The second part of the epic concerns Gilgamesh’s mourning for Enkidu and his search for the secret of eternal life. His quest ends when he discovers that for mortal beings there is no eternal life.

Actors Ahmed Moneka and Jesse LaVercombe along with director and co-author Seth Bockley seek to link the real-life stories of Moneka and LaVercombe to this epic. Moneka, playing a character named “Ahmed”, runs a coffee bar in Toronto into which steps LaVercombe, playing a character named “Jesse”. Through their conversation we discover that Moneka was a famous actor and singer in Iraq.

His downfall occurred when he appeared in the short film The Society (2011) about homosexuality in Baghdad directed by Osama Rasheed. The film was first screened at the TIFF in 2015 and Moneka went to promote it. While there, he learned that he, though straight, was banned from returning to Iraq and that his entire family was now in danger. His family fled to Turkey and Moneka stayed in Toronto. At this point in the play Moneka has not yet rebuilt his life as an actor and singer.

Jesse’s story is far less interesting. He married a Canadian woman, but they later divorced. In order not to lose his health insurance he stayed in Canada. When Ahmed meets Jesse, Jesse has just learned that he has been dropped from the cast of a big Hollywood movie that he had hoped would be his break into Hollywood films. In sharing their stories and in discussing the Epic of Gilgamesh, part of which Jesse read while in the loo, the two bond and become friends.

If this sounds like a pretty lame parallel to the Babylonian epic, it is. The only part that Moneka and LaVercombe’s lives share with the epic are that they are two men of different backgrounds who become friends. The only thing remotely resembling a quest that they take is their trip after eating a magic mushroom (an action not logical for either of the two, especially since Ahmed’s wife is soon to give birth). Jesse does not die and the only notion of immortality in the non-epic portions of the plays is that Jesse may never be immortalized in film, at least in American film which, to him, seems to be the only kind that counts.

In the show, Moneka and LaVercombe shift between enacting scenes from the epic and scenes from their everyday day lives. Their everyday lives are so paltry, especially Jesse’s, that the shift from epic to non-epic is comic and the shift from non-epic to epic seems pretentious or at least self-aggrandizing.

The gold standard for representing myth in the form of everyday life is James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), in which the actions of three characters in Dublin on June 16, 1904, recapitulates the actions of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 8th century BC). The disparity between the grandeur of Homer’s epic and the triviality of the Dubliners’ everyday lives is comic, but Joyce’s intention is to demonstrate that even the most common life can embody the mythic – an idea deriving from psychologists Freud and Jung.

This idea has been carried on in film as in Orfeu Negro (1959) by Marcel Camus that sets the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice during carnival celebrations in contemporary Rio de Janeiro or on musicals like the recent Hadestown (2016) by Anaïs Mitchell, now playing in Toronto, that sets the stories of both Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone in the Depression-era United States. In the play The Brothers Size (2007), Tarell Alvin McCraney tells the story of three lower-class men, whose lives still reflected the nature of the Yoruban gods whose names they bore.

The main difference between these works and the play King Gilgamesh is that the works mentioned are all fictions especially written to reflect ancient myth, whereas in King Gilgamesh we have two real-life stories which the co-authors try to force into some relationship with the ancient epic. Switching between epic and non-epic in the play only highlights the contrast between the two and is all to the disadvantage of the non-epic which looks trivial and meaningless by comparison.

The mere fact that Jesse, the Enkidu-figure, in the non-epic portions of the play does not die but is merely excluded from a film, underscores how irrelevant the epic actually is to understanding anything about the lives of Moneka and LaVercombe. The non-epic portions of the play are about birth and celebration, not death and mourning.

In any event, if one accepts that the fundamental concept behind King Gilgamesh is irreparably flawed, one can still enjoy the show for the playing of Moenka’s five-piece band, Moneka Arabic Jazz, and for the ecstatic singing of Moneka himself. Moneka band plays a style of music called Arabic maqam, which refers to a type of improvisation on given seven-note tone rows. The emphasis on improvisation links the music to jazz and the use of extended melismata will recall a prime feature of Middle Eastern and South Asian vocal music. The addition of regular rhythmic beats makes the music eminently danceable and audiences may find themselves “dancing” in their seats when the band is playing and Moneka is singing.

Moneka is also a fine actor as showed last year as Musa in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad ZooThroughout the play, at least until Ahmed’s wife has her baby, Moneka conveys a growing worry in Ahmed that he tries to suppress when talking with Jesse. When enacting scenes from the epic, Moneka makes it seems as if Ahmed has rechannelled his anxiety into power as his stance, voice and body language take on an air of grandeur.

By comparison, Jesse LaVercombe, although originally American, comes off as a typically bland Canadian. The best that can be said is that LaVercombe does as much as he can with the weak character he has to play. In the epic scenes, he tries to signal through deliberately awkward body language that Enkidu is still not used to his new human form and in no way has the natural grace and rhythm that Moneka as Gilgamesh displays.

As it is, the best sections of the play are the epic portions where Moneka and LaVercombe use their talents at mime and movement and Lorenzo Savoini’s minimal set and elaborate lighting to tell the ancient tale. These sections are exciting and vital since they engage the imagination in a way that the narration of everyday events simply cannot.

As a play, King Gilgamesh would fare much better as a musical theatre concert in which Moneka and LaVercombe, left their personal lives behind and simply retold the ancient epic in a contemporary way accompanied by Moneka’s lively band. By focussing on the ancient poem, few people would be able to miss the radical message the epic puts forward that for mortals there is no eternal life – a view in direct contradiction with the later views of eternal life found in three Abrahamic religions. The Epic of Gilgamesh may be an ancient poem but its world view is much more modern and more thought-provoking than the current play suggests.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Jesse LaVercombe as Jesse and Ahmed Moneka as Ahmed; Jesse LaVercombe as Enkidu and Ahmed Moneka as Gilgamesh; musician Waleed Abdulhamid, Ahmed Moneka as Ahmed, musician Jessica Deutsch and Jesse LaVercombe as Jesse. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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