Edinburgh Fringe 2019
A young ensemble cast offer a farcical romp on heroism, jealousy and listening to your mother. Babolin theatre, past winners of a FringeReview Outstanding Theatre Award are back at the Fringe.
The epic story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu has been much pondered on, written about, and even portrayed, presented and interpreted in the Arts. Enkidu, a wild man, raised by wild animals was made by the goddess of creation, Anuru and sent to the earth to challenge and balance the pride and arrogance of Gilgamesh . As the mythical tale unfolds, his wildness is also his innocence, until he falls into the arms of sacred prostitute Shamhat. It’s a rich tale, to be understood and interpreted on many levels. Whether you are religious or not, in the end it’s a bit of a romp, but also a piece that packs a punch about the responsibility of humankind and its relationship to purpose and the Divine.
That is, in part, how award-winning Babolin Theatre have treated it. I say ‘in part’, because this unmissable bit of artistic creation by a powerful and empowered young cast also treats its material with tenderness and reverence. Here we have a show that succeeds in fusing the silly with the sacred, the bold with the beautiful. Often anchored in comedy, tragedy and wonder are never far away, the arrogance of the gods tempered with mission and high purpose (which here, down below on earth, we can wonder and shake our fists at).
This is devised work, consciously directed with tight discipline, competent musical composition and out-there performance. Rock guitar gives way to angelic harmonies and beats that are certainly not of the era, yet somehow rarely out of place.
Babolin are an ensemble group with an abundance of talent between them. They put that to fine use in this bit of emotional, humorous, accessible, creative and evocative story-theatre (a signature style in most of their work). They are young; this is older youth theatre, but it holds its own as professional quality work with a confidence that’s part of the impact on us of the piece itself. Bold, yes. Brash, yes! Tentative and rough around the edges? Sometimes.
Some of it needs to finesse and tighten, but that never interrupts the flow and only occasionally creates a bit of confusion when words can’t be heard in the designed chaos. At its best this is a twenty-four legged beast called ensemble performance. Then the legs leap apart and we have well drawn and realised characters, friendships, rival and strategising gods, raging bulls and giants. That’s the huge achievement here – despite occasionally overlapping too much vocally and losing clarity, for almost the entire show the cast build and realise worlds down here on earth and up there and below, they are individual and collective story tellers, performing physical theatre cabaret heavily dosed with drama. And it all works and synergy arises. This is a community of performers, a team, balanced and brilliant.
Styles and genres are blended, we leap but never lurch from one set piece to another; I wonder if a little bit more dramaturgy would serve the story-sharing intention, yet what is shown here does have the virtue of putting the show to the service of variety and then allowing that variety to keep us engaged, interested and also occasionally satisfyingly on the edge of our seats.
It’s a tale, realised through performance of an epic myth which they fit into an hour with natural ease. The narrative emerges and clarifies – basically we, as audience, got into it fairly quickly. “Ah. that’s what this is all about!” I heard and saw sighs of satisfaction in the audience, much laughter, a few oohs and a rousing ovation at the end.
I observed that, as the audience settled, the intensity of our collective attention was outbid only by the focus and commitment of the more-than-holding-their-own creative community of actors, story-tellers, musicians, singers, puppet maker-puppeteers, stage fighters, clowns, mime artists, and even punch-line comedians.
It’s a sad story, but also a gift of a tale about love and friendship; Whether you believe in that stuff or not, Babolin put gods into the sky and under the earth, and invoke the spiritual world and the afterlife, presenting it all, scrutinising it all, and then inviting us all to question ourselves.
Some superb bits of set piece verbal and physical connection, movement, knockabout and shared narrating are highlights, there’s so much variety here; a second visit will allow you to pick up a lot of what you are bound to miss the first time. So I went again, on the last day of the run and I decided to change the reviewer rating.
This is fringe theatre at its very best – risk-taking for the performers, successfully delivered to a more than nourished audience. Gilgamesh is self-realised through his friend Enkidu – perhaps so utterly that the gods themselves can’t quite hack it?
It’s an outstanding piece of work for the whole company’s courage of be not quite perfect (perhaps a bit like Gilgamesh and Enkidu themselves as the creation of far from perfect deities). This is a shared experience for cast and audience, an ability to keep the fourth wall up whilst making helpful and risky tears in it in the service of the story.
It’s breathtaking in places for its variety, creativity and pace. It’s laughaloud funny and able to invite tears. Its puppetry is as clever as it is affecting and effective. It is noisy and able to invoke utter silence. It can be ethereal and grounded as grounded can be. They are having fun, but it never unhinges. It is derivative in places, rarely I believe accidentally, yet in ways that modernise it whist staying rooted in ancient myth. As reviewer I can only be the scribe, and the record can never be fully complete.
I laughed, I cried, I leaned forward so as to not lose the narrative here and there, but most of all I was privilegd to be part of explosive theatre that is an important event at this Fringe. This is an outstanding show. I’m going to see it again for the third time if ever it plays again, or the gods may just have something to say about it if I don’t.