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One of the tablets of the Story of Gilgamesh. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, from Wikimedia Commons.

Ottawa Storytellers present the oldest story in the world

By Kabriya Coghlan on October 18, 2016

Ottawa Storytellers will be putting on a very special show at the Arts Court Theatre this Wednesday – a performance of The Story of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest known recorded work of literature, found inscribed on Ancient Sumerian tablets dating back to 2100 BC.

Jan Andrews and Tom Lips have teamed up to perform this epic tale, with musical accompaniment from Armin Rahmanian.

“It’s a story of a king, and I would say in some ways he’s a tragically flawed king,” Lips said. “He’s extremely powerful and good-looking and supposedly wise, in that he knows many things, but he’s not wise as a ruler. He’s somewhat oppressive as a ruler in the beginning.

“And the gods, in order to address this, they send him a friend, they send him someone who’s just as strong as he is,” Lips explained. “In the process of first fighting this friend, Enkidu, and then befriending him, Gilgamesh starts on a journey of wisdom. He starts to learn how to be a better king.”

Lips promised that the ancient tale will have a little bit of something for everyone.

“It’s got gods, it’s got monsters, it’s got sex and violence, it’s got wisdom and afterlife and all kinds of interesting features,” Lips laughed. “Essentially, it’s an epic about confronting the basic reality of death – that we would like to live forever, but turns out we can’t and Gilgamesh learns this the hard way.”

There’s a big difference between storytelling and theatre, Lips and Andrews both stressed. Audience members shouldn’t expect to see anyone dressed up in costumers or any elaborate sets.

“It’s not acting,” Andrews explained. “For me, it’s very important that I can see what’s happening in the story in my head. If I see the images of it then the audience will see the images too. You try to have it very present, so that in a way, although of course you know the story, it’s like you don’t know what will happen next. It’s like it’s happening right now.”

Andrews and Lips will be alternating back and forth throughout the performance, each telling roughly half of the story.

“Working with Tom is a pleasure,” Andrews said. “I’ve known him a long time, he’s known me a long time, and we’re both committed to finding a way to make it good.”

Lips agreed. “Jan and I have been friends for a long time, and it’s really been great working with her,” he said.

But the process of preparing such an immense story together still brought some challenges for the pair.

“The story actually really is not complete,” Andrews explained. “It’s written on these tablets and it is missing [parts]. When you begin to start working, you realize there are places where you’ve just got to kind of make a bit of a leap to fill what you believe is happening here.”

“Our goal is not to be an archaeological presentation, our goal is to tell a story,” Lips said.

Both Lips and Andrews have experience performing other ancient epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad. They both said they believe there are certain universal themes that make these kinds of stories last through the ages and continue to interest people so many years later.

“I think there’s a human element in them,” Andrews said. “What happens in the Gilgamesh story is that Gilgamesh’s great friend Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh can’t abide this. He can’t abide the idea that his friend has died, he will have to die, so he goes on this enormous journey in the quest for eternal life, which he can’t get. It doesn’t matter that he’s the king, it doesn’t matter that he’s a great hero, it doesn’t matter what he’s done or not done. This is one thing he can’t have.

“There’s a part of all of us that is not very accepting of death, that does not want this to happen, that would like to have an alternative, so this is a very human quest he’s on,” she continued. “And I think that really pulls at people.”

Andrews and Lips are both hoping that the experiences in this ancient story will still connect with a modern crowd.

“These are themes that come up a lot in the great epics,” Lips said. “Friendship, death, the challenge of facing some dangerous situation and overcoming it, (these are) universal experiences, even in our ordinary lives we encounter them.

“In epics, it’s dressed up with kings and monsters, but it’s still that same experience.”

Jan Andrews and Tom Lips will perform The Story of Gilgamesh at the Arts Court Theatre, Wednesday, October 19, at 7:30 pm. The performance is presented by Ottawa Storytellers and tickets can be purchased online for $12-$20. 

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