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Gilgamesh

Tam Dean Burn can’t help but be touched by poetry and poets. In everything this most singular of actors does, it seems, the spirits of great artists are with him. Take the production of Gilgamesh, for instance, the dramatic adaptation of the world’s oldest known verse epic by the late Edwin Morgan, which Burn is directing with a cast of acting students from RSAMD. As is usually the case with Burn, he buried himself in the work in preparation to make flesh a piece deemed by some to be unstagable.

Burn had visited Morgan at the care home he lived in towards the end of his life, who had been delighted by the prospect of seeing Gilgamesh come alive. The poet’s death on August 19th this year aged 90 sadly put paid to that, however. Yet on that very day, in the grandest if accidental synchronicitous poetic gestures, Burn’s partner gave birth to the couple’s baby daughter. What else could Burn call her but Morgan?

Burn was unable to go to the poet’s memorial service a week later due acting commitments in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Caledonia. Morgan, however, was lying in state, so Burn’s first trip out with his daughter since her birth was to visit the man who she was named after. The minister who was due to take the service later that day picked up on Burn and Morgan’s presence.

“So our wee Morgan got a shout out at the service,” a delighted Burn relates. “There’s been other similar situations where something’s come into my life so strongly,” Burn says, “and I wasn’t expecting it to be like that when I started out on it. But for another poet to become such a big figure in my life in the way that William Blake has is pretty amazing. But it’s an enormous great pity he died before he could see the play.”

Burn first discovered Gilgamesh after he revived Manifesto, his nights of politically motivated cabaret that first took the live poetry and music scene by the scruff of the neck during the heat of 1980s Thatcherism. Burn remembered Morgan’s translations of poems by Mayakovsky, only to unexpectedly discover Morgan’s twenty-first version of a war-torn tale set in the Middle East, and which tells of the eponymous ruler’s bond with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods as Gilgamesh’s equal to distract him from acts of oppression.

In a work Morgan himself wrote of in his introduction to the 2006 published edition of the play as “the oldest gay poem in history”, was added the all too contemporary mythologies of ‘disappeared’ political prisoners, singing transvestites and a Glaswegian jester. Enkidu himself dies of a telling virus to the blood in a work that became irresistible to Burn’s own fiercely worn political sensibilities.

“I didn’t know anything about Gilgamesh”, Burn admits, “but I was completely gobsmacked by it, as well as by finding out that no-one had done it. To discover that the original was set in southern Iraq very close to Basra and all of that sort of thing seemed to tie in with what I was interested in on so many levels. But what I saw quite quickly was that, rather than do it as a large scale piece of promenade theatre, how important the verse was to the forefront of things. It’s gone through various permutations, and Edwin originally wrote it for a cast of thousands, but rather than take it to Tramway, I thought it might be better bringing it in-house at RSAMD, where we can take time over working on the verse.”

With this in mind, Burn is working with nine acting students on the first four of the play’s five acts. Rather than setting down any definitive staging, such an exercise in Burn’s mind is more of a showcase for the possibilities of bringing the play to life. Especially as Burn’s production of Gilgamesh will form part of the programme for IETM (Informal European Theatre Meeting), the international network for contemporary performing arts, which this year is hosted in Glasgow. Part of the show will be made up by original songs by Morgan put to new settings by students on the jazz and traditional music courses at RSAMD, who will provide live accompaniment for the play from the theatre’s orchestra pit.

“It’s the first step to show that it can really work”, Burn says. “It‘s a really big number, but without any massive difficulties for us. It’s all perfectly manageable to rein it in at these levels and to not be too ambitious, but to do a chamber version that may eventually turn into something else.”

Morgan’s theatre writing never shied away from big stories. His version of Cyrano de Bergerac for Gerry Mulgrew’s Communicado theatre company was a runaway smash hit in the early 1990s, while in 2000, a new version of Phaedra was staged at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. The same year saw the production of AD, a three-part biblical epic presented by the provocative Raindog theatre company at Tramway. AD told the story of Jesus as a humanist and revolutionary hero, who not only fathered a child, but became close to a homosexual disciple while becoming tempted by violent nationalist politics. Again, this is all grist to the mill for Burn’s standpoint, which his work as an actor generating his own work such as his tribute to cartoon artist Harry Horse, Year of the Horse, testifies to.

Alongside Gilgamesh, Burn will himself perform alongside students in a rendition of Morgan’s Ten Theatre Poems.

“I think Edwin Morgan is a theatrical poet,” says Burn. “He’s written a good number of plays, but has always been interested in theatre, and there’s an inherent theatricality of all different sorts already in the play. We’ve not had to bring a great deal to it in that way. It’s not an arid, well-meaning but purely literary piece of writing. The theatricality is already there, and one of the sources I’ve gone back to is what I’ve learned working with Steven Berkoff. You don’t need props. The audience can tell what something is. You don’t need all the paraphernalia to have a purity and a clarity to what you’re doing.”

One of the piece’s major concerns is sexuality, or, as Burn sees it, “what sexuality was before religion got hold of it and took control. Before that, there was clearly more freedom in terms of sexuality than what we have now. So it’s not just some dusty historical piece we’re doing for the sake of it. It says something about now as well.”

While Burn makes no claims for anything definitive, what, one wonders, would Morgan have made of his staging if he’d lived long enough to see it?

“I hope he’d love it,” says Burn. “He was really happy we were doing it. I don’t have any sense of Heaven, but poets become immortality through their work. We’re serving him in that way, and that’s a responsibility, but with that material we’re working with, we can’t really fail.”

Gilgamesh, RSAMD, Glasgow, November 2nd-6th, 7.30pm. Ten Theatre Poems, RSAMD, November 5th, 6pm.
www.rsamd.ac.uk
www.ietm-glasgow.eu

The Herald, November 2nd 2010

ends

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