THEATRE / After the flood: Paul Taylor reviews He Who Saw Everything

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The Independent Culture
THE Springboard Season at the Cottesloe certainly can't be accused of a narrow focus. From plays by writers just getting launched on their theatrical careers, like Meredith Oakes, it now leaps to the opposite extreme on the timescale with a work that makes Aeschylus look Johnny-come-lately, the Bible a new-fangled confection.

He Who Saw Everything is the opening line of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, which is at least 4,500 years old. Found on fragments of stone in several ancient languages, it has a hero who is the prototype of Hercules and contains an account of the Flood that pre-dates the biblical equivalent by one and a half thousand years. The dramatic force of the epic, with its large number of speeches and phrases that sound like cueing devices, had already been noted, but the recent discovery in Armenia of three fragments set out as scripts suggests the distinct likelihood that portions of the work were staged, 2,000 years before Greek tragedy had been thought of.

How timeless, though, is its appeal? It's a question that Tim Supple and his talented cast have been exploring in the Studio. Their spare but rich production (which uses an eloquent translation by Robert Temple) offers itself as a work-in-progress, 'a sketch of the story for a new audience', whose reactions they want to hear. It's already an absorbing piece, staged with resourceful, eclectic simplicity - bowler hats, for example, wobble on the top of jittery canes to signify public anxiety, and when the story of the Flood is told, the small blue cube representing the ark is twirled and passed from hand to hand, in a dreamlike, wondering way, by the six actors who collaborate on the role of Gilgamesh. An elemental, primitive feel and incisive narrative punctuation is imparted by the constant percussive background and strange string sounds provided by the cast on the large bank of instruments upstage.

It takes a little time to sort out your Anus from your Anunnakis and your Enkis from your Enkidus, and there's a fair bit in the work, particularly in relation to the numerology and the morality of the gods, which you feel nothing short of several years' applied study would make clear. But Supple's production vividly communicates the broad emotional contours (from triumph to sober perplexity) of this legend. In the first phase, we see the excesses of the man-god Gilgamesh curbed by his specially created equal, Enkidu, a wild shaggy figure who is pitched somewhere between Mowgli and Mellors, arrestingly played by Trevor Sellers.

Drawn by an almost erotic, mirror-gazing compulsion to each other, they become inseparable companions in adventure. But their defiant feats anger one of the gods, who decides to punish Enkidu. Left alone after his friend's death, Gilgamesh roams the steppes trying to find the secret of immortality.

There's only one glaringly crude moment, when the omens for Gilgamesh's journey to Cedar Mountain are presented by film of atomic explosions on wheeled-in TV sets. Elsewhere, Supple's taste does not desert him. Moving smoothly from narration to dialogue, the production is particularly impressive in the way it copes with the repetitiveness of some of the verse, distributing it among speakers who then overlap. The reiterated line in one sequence, 'Dense was the darkness and there was no light', seems to snap at you forbiddingly from various directions.

Likewise, playing Gilgamesh as a relay and eventually as a group allows a variety of powerful effects. Stirring stuff and a pretty complete experience, given that it's just fragments.

National Theatre, South Bank SE1 (details on 071-928 2252)