‘We’re continuing Gilgamesh, making it work in a different way’

Macnas’ Noeline Kavanagh on bringing an ancient epic to life during a time of pandemic and restrictions

Uta, the survivor of the Flood (played by Midie Corcoran) roams the streets of Galway, paving the way for Gilgamesh. PhotoL- Julia Dunin

Uta, the survivor of the Flood (played by Midie Corcoran) roams the streets of Galway, paving the way for Gilgamesh. PhotoL- Julia Dunin

“SHE’S SOME woman for one woman” is a phrase that can very easily be applied to Macnas artistic director Noeline Kavanagh, who also embodies that old adage, “The show must go on.”

2020 was meant to conclude with Macnas taking Gilgamesh, a Galway 2020 commission, and inspired by the Mesopotamian epic poem, to the city streets in a parade filled with the spectacular imaginativeness the company is celebrated for, and as a play, written by Marina Carr, to the Black Box Theatre. Then Covid-19 arrived.

“Everything you know, do, and have done is suddenly not permissible,” Noeline tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “My job is to serve the work, to serve the public. Everything we could have done on a large scale - parades, spectacles - none of that can now happen, and you’re like, ‘WHAT!?!’ You need time to grieve that.”

Yet Noeline was not about to give up on Gilgamesh. She was stoic, and realistic, about the reality of what Covid-19 meant for the arts, “It is what it is,” she says, but she also welcomed the slower pace, and quietened time the Covid restrictions brought.

“It gives you time to think, you can look at things differently, and re-assess,” she says. “And I did. You can step back and breathe, and I thought, I’m still Noeline, I still have ideas, I’m still creative.”

The original plans for Gilgamesh had to be scrapped and completely re-thought. “What you could do in the old world you can’t do in the new world,” says Noeline. “So you have to look at what you can do, and the question becomes, ‘How can we get the story out?’ There is no parade, to theatre show, no public events, no street events, those elements you structured your life astound had to be reimagined, so how could we tell this story and keep it interesting, exciting, and give it integrity?”

Watch that man

In late August, during a brief lull in the Covid restrictions, a bearded man with wild, unkempt hair, pulling a cart behind him, was spotted on the streets of the city and Salthill. As he pulled the cart, it kept playing a tune, ‘Happy Birthday’ over and over again.

The man was Uta, but his full name is Uta-na'ishtim ('He who found life' ). He is the builder of the Ark, survivor of the Great Flood, and is better known to us as Noah, and the gods have decreed he can never die.

Uta was played by Midie Corcoran and it was the first glimpse of how Macnas were re-imagining Gilgamesh. It was the action of Uta pulling the cart which made the cart itself play ‘Happy Birthday’, an inspired piece of design and engineering, from Gilgamesh co-designer Orla Clogher and Bill Wright.

The second indication of a new approach came last September, in the first in a series of specially commissioned films by cinematographer Colm Hogan.

The oldest story ever told

The Epic Of Gilgamesh dates back c4,000 years. It is older than The Iliad and The Odyssey, and may have influenced both. It parallels stories in The Bible, and is the oldest surviving piece of literature in the world.

It was written in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait ), and is the story of the King or Uruk, Gilgamesh; his rivalry, then friendship, with the wild man, Enkidu; and their epic adventure, encountering gods, kings, and monsters, across southern Iraq, the Lebanon, and southern Turkey.

'Macnas are still in the creative space, and now on the digital space, which right now is the only outlet'

The magic of Hogan’s films, and Marina Carr’s writing, was to take this ancient story, so rooted in the Middle East, and make it seem such a natural fit for the west of Ireland. The bleak, brooding, landscapes of Connemara became a believable setting for a story so rooted in the Arabian Desert.

The second film saw Galway, shot from above as the darkness closed in and the city lit up, take on the look of ancient Uruk, and the puppet of Gilgamesh, even if only witnessed on the screen, was powerful and intimidating. “The puppets are nothing short of extraordinary, I’ve been blown away,” says Noeline, who is full of praise for the Macnas team that is putting this together.

The third film is released today, and will concentrate on Gilgamesh’s rival/friend, Enkidu. Noeline hopes these pieces will keep audiences engaged and curious about Gilgamesh’s unfolding adventure.

“We have continued with Gilgamesh, making it work in a different way, less out in the community, on the streets, spectacle, but still present, still in the creative space, and now on the digital space, which right now is the only outlet.”

‘I am Gilgamesh, King of Kings’

Gilgamesh - ancient carving

Yet it would not be Macnas without some form of street spectacle, and Noeline and Co, have a few tricks up their sleeve on this score.

Projections of the magnificent puppets of the characters of the Gilgamesh story will be screened onto buildings in Eyre Square from 5pm until midnight throughout the coming weeks, and containing the legend, “I am Gilgamesh, King of Kings, they will sing my name until the end of time.”

“These are kick-ass puppets,” says Noeline, “and I can’t wait for people to see the costumes designed by Cherie White, she has designed some of the most extraordinary costumes I have ever seen.”

A mural of Uta has also been painted on the high wall over the barber shop at the corner of Bridge Street and Dominick Street. “I like the idea that Uta cannot die because he’s painted permanently there,” says Noeline.

'We don’t have the language yet'

The challenge now is to complete the Gilgamesh story. Noeline hopes Marina Carr’s stage version of the poem can eventually be performed, but doubts it will take place in March as originally hoped, as Covid restrictions are likely to still be in place. Yet in some shape or form, in whatever way Macnas can present work, while still adhering to Covid guidelines, we will see more Gilgamesh characters, and there may even be a longer Gilgamesh film at some point.

“I would like to do a visual poem, another iteration of Gilgamesh,” says Noeline, “and shoot something like a 30 minute film, make it episodic, and see if we could screen it indoors and outdoors. With Covid we are having to look at new ways of working, but we don’t have the language or terminology yet. We don’t normally work in the film medium, but we will keep going, sharing the work, presenting it to audiences, and keeping it all alive.”


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