Amateur premiere of epic ancient story

Keiron Pim It is an ancient epic with modern appeal, and it's being performed in Norwich from Thursday. KEIRON PIM looks ahead to the amateur premiere of Gilgamesh at the city’s Sewell Barn Theatre.

Keiron Pim

It is thought to be the world's oldest written story, dating from a time and place very different from modern Britain: more than 4,000 years ago, in the Middle Eastern land of Mesopotamia.

But the themes explored in the Epic of Gilgamesh have universal relevance, and this is emphasised by a modern theatrical adaptation that opens in Norwich this week.

This Thursday night, November 26, sees the poet Derrek Hines' play 'Gilgamesh' receive its amateur premiere at the Sewell Barn Theatre. Performance up to December 6.

“The essential questions are ones we continue to ask: what's the meaning of it all? Why do we die? The themes are of love, bereavement and loss, which are classical themes.”

The story is this, in brief: Gilgamesh, the tyrannical King of Uruk, refuses to accept his mortality. The great god Anu listens to the complaints of Gilgamesh's downtrodden subjects and creates a wild but noble man, Enkidu, with a view to civilising Gilgamesh, and teaching him love and friendship. Then, challenging the gods, Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out together on adventures. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh discovers humility and recognises that it is the transience of life that makes it precious.

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The story predates Homer by at least 1,500 years and its rediscovery in the 19th century gave a fresh insight into the culture of a great ancient civilisation. The epic was inscribed on clay tablets discovered during excavations of a library in the ancient city of Nineveh, which lies by the Tigris in modern-day northern Iraq.

The version being staged this week could be described as being twice removed from the original story but shares the same themes, Hines explains.

“I published a poem [of Gilgamesh] about two years before I approached the play in fact. So I was adapting my poem, which adapted the original epic. There was considerable rewriting.”

For director Clare Howard, the appeal was “quite personal”, she says. “I studied classical civilisations at A-level and at university as well. We did Ancient Greek and Roman, but as I got older I grew to realise that there were other ancient civilisations out there whose contributions to world culture are equally important and should be studied.”

Mesopotamia means “the land between the rivers”, referring to the Tigris and Euphrates. It covered an area spanning modern Iraq and parts of the neighbouring countries of Syria, Turkey and Iran.

“This civilisation more than 4,000 years ago gave us the beginnings of writing - without them, our whole literature might not be here,” says Clare.

“I had always heard of Gilgamesh but didn't know anything about it whatsoever.

“Then I heard there was a new play version, so I got it, discovered it was great fun and did some research.”

Hines' play had its first production two years ago and received strong reviews. The New Statesman said: “Gilgamesh is Derrek Hines's version of the Gilgamesh Epic - not so much a translation as a vibrant and vigorous reimagining of the world's first book, which should take its place alongside [Seamus] Heaney's Beowulf and [Ted] Hughes's Ovid on the shelf of revivified classics.”

The Washington Post, meanwhile, said: “Derrek Hines' version is like a rock band attacking a Bach concerto with jarring but thrilling results. His flamboyance and daring make this a delight.”

The Sewell Barn production has a cast of 10 actors, with Nick Lawrence playing Gilgamesh, Warren Lynch playing Enkidu and Ruth Howitt as Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility.

“It's quite a challenging play to stage,” says Clare, from Norwich. “He has made it very modern - we are not going to have guys trotting around in ancient armour! We have to represent this world, and the realm of the gods, and the underworld, with some very quick changes between them.

“I think there's something in it to appeal to everyone. On one level it's an adventure story with gods and heroes, but it's also quite philosophical.”

t Gilgamesh is at the Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich from November 27-29 and December 3-6, starting at 7.30pm. There is also a 2.30pm matinée performance on December 6. The production is recommended for people over the age of 14, owing to language and some sexual content.

t Tickets cost £7 (or £5 concessions) including a programme, and a free drink is on offer on the first night. Tickets are available from Jarrold's customer services in Norwich - telephone 01603 697248 or email

t See for more about the theatre.