Noeline Kavanagh, Artistic Director of the internationally acclaimed Galway-based theatre company Macnas, writes for Culture about their latest project, a series of stunning short films entitled The Legend Of Gilgamesh...

I came across the story of Gilgamesh in 2015. I was thinking about myths and legends and was interested in the origin story, the template for our own Irish legends and so many others. What came before the Icelandic Sagas, Homer's Odyssey and Cúchulainn? And because of the way we make our work in Macnas, I wanted to find a story that would fit the artistic brief – large scale, epic, universal – and allow us to really push ourselves creatively as artists and makers.

The making of Gilgamesh is Herculean. When you play with the themes of power, love, death, immortality, it is epic and you're going to get that reflected back at you…

Gilgamesh goes back over 3,000 years, the first story ever written down by human beings. An epic poem recorded on clay tablets that was uncovered in Northern Iraq in the mid 1800s. It centres on a young, tyrannical king who oppresses his people, wreaking havoc on his city of Uruk. The citizens cry out to the Gods for help, the Gods respond by creating a kind of super-human – a wild young man called Enkidu - to challenge Gilgamesh and keep him in check. But the plan goes awry when the two become best friends and a brilliant love-hate bromance begins… The tale follows their adventures together but also the consequences of their choices upon others and the natural world.

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The story is about a young man who wants to become a God and live forever. Gilgamesh is human and the gods he answers to are divine, making them immortal. This angers him because it makes him susceptible to death. He wants to become immortal himself, the only way he thinks he can, and so goes on a quest for fame and fortune with Enkidu at his side. This ambition reflects the problems in how we interpret power and what it means to be a 'leader; the arrogance of one individual’s desire to make his mark on the world; the impact of this power, its effect on those around him and the ruination and terror it brings.

Gilgamesh goes back over 3,000 years, the first story ever written down by human beings.

The Epic of Gilgamesh dives deep into humanity's 3,000-year-old understanding around what it takes to be a leader. It describes a king who is young, male, and tyrannical. His rule includes the annihilation of nature for capital gain and the consequences of what that does our world. The amazing mind-blowing thing to me about this story, is that something written down thousands of years ago is our world now. We are living this story now.

These are the leadership structures we have today, the actions, choices and decisions that are being played out globally. The core themes at the heart of the world’s first every literary epic are, thousands of years later, at the centre of the human experience.

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The making of Gilgamesh is Herculean. When you play with the themes of power, love, death, immortality, it is epic and you’re going to get that reflected back at you… This is not a small story for a small time, it’s a big story in an epic time. It’s powerful but also challenging because you’re dealing with meta themes. These epic stories explain ourselves to ourselves, they are like a mirror and a lot of the time we are not that pretty…

Noeline Kavanagh, Artistic Director of Macnas

Living and working in Galway, I really connected with the setting of the story. In the first original Babylonian version of the story, Uruk is described as a city of innovation, a city of festivals, temples, canals and libraries. A jewel of jewels… Galway! There's a real synchronicity there. Uruk, like Galway, is a bustling urban centre situated in the middle of an iconic, rural landscape. A civilization bedding itself into a wild, natural beauty. A city at the edge of the world.

The original plan for the project was a series of large scale performances for Galway 2020. When faced with the challenge of how to reimagine it around the current restrictions, we asked, is there a way that we can do it that still matters and can speak to an audience in isolation? It has been a challenging and amazing process… But that’s the power of this story, it has allowed us to continue to make work, to keep the conversation between our audiences alive in an extraordinary time. And we’re not done yet!

Gilgamesh will premiere this Sunday 12th September at the Town Hall Theatre, in front of a live, socially distanced, in-person audience, followed by a live 'In Conversation' event with director Noeline Kavanagh and playwright Marina Carr. Tickets are free and available to book via the Town Hall Box Office. Gilgamesh will also be available to View On Demand for 48 hours only on 18th and 19th September 2021 via Eventive - find out more here.