Back in the pit ... actor Mark Tregonning from the production in England.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
"We try to use the qualities of dirt," says Phil Rolfe of the decision to stage the 5000-year-old Sumerian epic Gilgamesh in a seven-metre mudpit.
"At times [the dirt's] playful and at other times it becomes like a burial ground. By the end of the play the actors are literally covered in dirt, caked in it."
"The dirt is a real character," says co-creator Christian Leavesley, who admits to feeling "quite suffocated by cleanliness".
Mess is an important part of the work of Melbourne theatre troupe Uncle Semolina (& Friends), who have also re-enacted parts of the Old Testament and Greek myths using their childhood love of soiled plastic superheroes. As we speak they are making a mess of London's auspicious Barbican Theatre before wiping down their Iron Sheik and Sergeant Slam figurines for the Opera House. The 1980s toys play the respective leads of the original superhero Gilgamesh, born two-thirds god and one-third human, and comrade Enkidu, born half-man, half-beast.
They suspect their mudpit in the Opera House will arouse the usual mix of reactions to what they admit is, dolls aside, not a show for children.
"It's pretty violent," Leavesley says. "There's quite a lot of darkness in some scenes which counteract the child-play aspects. [In London] we had three curtain calls, which they told us is extremely rare, but at the same time we also had a couple of people who just thought, 'I don't understand what this is about and I find it annoying,' and left. I'm assuming that's what they were thinking. There is a level at which you [must] understand the imaginative vocabulary that the show is built on, which is the way that we played as children."
Leavesley, 33, and Rolfe, 35, feel their combination of intense toy-play and mythology appeals to generations that spent the 1970s or '80s in sandpits with Star Wars and World Wrestling Federation figurines. Rolfe and Leavesley saw in this the roots of storytelling and returned to the mudpit when the time came to stage their own shows.
"I had the whole Star Wars set," Rolfe says. "I used to play in the backyard, flood it with water and just crash and bash through all sorts of stories with my brother. Christian had a similar suburban Australian upbringing."
Leavesley: "We had more Lego at my place."
"From a psychological point of view," Rolfe says, "when you are a kid playing with these toys you're playing out versions and possibilities for the world. That kind of re-imagining of stories and creating epics out of miniatures is part of the inspiration for the show."
The actors hold the figurines, like dolls or puppets, and then do their voices for them as they play-fight each other. The figurines are the leads, but the audience can see the actors who are doing their voices and throwing them around.
The story is that of King Gilgamesh fighting and then befriending Enkidu who, after offending the goddess Ishtar, among others, is destroyed, leading Gilgamesh to a violent existential struggle with his own mortality.
This archetypal tale is the oldest surviving written story and from its 12 stone tablets later stories such as Noah and the flood and Homer's Odyssey arguably emerged.
Rolfe and Leavesley saw lessons relevant to our time in the work.
"When we first started it," Leavesley says, "the US was invading Iraq and [there was] the idea of a literal but also lateral sense of the US being at the height of its powers ... but now being somewhat of a Gilgamesh, of how different societies deal with a sense of mortality and of crumbling."
The tale of a tyrannical ruler convinced of his own invincibility carries specific messages for today's kings.
"It relates to that moment when you're a child and completely self-obsessed and then you realise the world's bigger than you," Rolfe says. "I think [world leaders] are still very much little boys, in that all the big geopolitics are actually little-boy stories if you boil them down."