Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Ahmed Moneka and Jesse Lavercombe in the Soulpepper production of King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild.Bruce Silcox/Bruce Silcox

When does friendship become the stuff of mythology? Ahmed Moneka and Jesse LaVercombe set out to answer this question in King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild, opening July 25 at the Young Centre in Toronto. The show is a musical theatre hybrid that mixes ancient mythology and contemporary Canadian life, and is the result of the real-life friendship between co-performers and co-creators Moneka and LaVercombe together with American director Seth Bockley.

Initially workshopped at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 2019, King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild traces Moneka’s journey as an exiled Iraqi actor to Canadian musician and his meeting with LaVercombe, a transplanted writer and actor in Canada and just as much a fish out of water. Onstage the pair share various personal stories involving sex, love and fatherhood.

The work is presented by Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto and offers a fascinating blend of cultures (Moneka is Iraqi; LaVercombe is American) and sounds (Arabic, African and jazz music make up the soundtrack.) It explores the creators’ respective inherent differences, as well as the larger experiences that tie them together. “We’re bringing the story of Gilgamesh into the modern world and giving an access point for everyone to understand it,” LaVercombe says.

The two chief figures in the epic of Gilgamesh, the titular protagonist (likely based on a real king of the Sumerian city of Uruk) and his comrade Enkidu, a wild man (a position comparable to the half-man, half-goat figure of classical mythology) are presented in the play within a parallel structure. Moneka and LaVercombe play the poem’s characters along with versions of themselves.

Written between 2100 BC and 1200 BC in what is now modern Iraq, the epic poem details the meeting of Enkidu and Gilgamesh following a test of strength, with the latter undertaking a dangerous journey to discover the secret to immortality. Themes of the ancient Mesopotamian poem (ambition, death, grief and friendship) parallel those explored within the play.

“We have taken care to make it fun and accessible,” LaVercombe says of the staging. “So, you don’t need to learn about Gilgamesh or Arabic jazz coming in.”

Minnesota-born LaVercombe, a writer and director across film, television and theatre, is best known for playing Jack Walker on CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries. Moneka trained at Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Art, and as a boy learned Afro-Sufi singing and drumming. He was the first Black Iraqi to host a television program and played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Shakespeare Company before coming to Canada.

Open this photo in gallery:

King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild traces Moneka’s journey as an exiled Iraqi actor to Canadian musician.Bruce Silcox/Bruce Silcox

The two met in 2017 as part of a summer initiative by touring Shakespeare troupe Driftwood Theatre Company. Their discussions around adapting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famed novel The Little Prince morphed into Moneka telling LaVercombe the story of Gilgamesh. “I’d never heard of it,” LaVercombe says. “Ahmed told me about it, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, let’s do this!’ The two-person structure meant the development was very organic.”

Adding music was every bit as natural: Moneka already had a musical group to turn to. He formed his ensemble, Moneka Arabic Jazz, a few years after his Toronto arrival in 2015. It fuses Arabic maqam (a brand of melodicism set to specific pitches) with African grooves, reflecting its founder’s heritage. The members of the group hail from Algeria, Greece, Sudan, Iraq and Canada.

In addition to the thrill of performance, King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild has introduced the band to theatre production. “There is no sacrificing the virtuosity of any of these musicians,” says Moneka, quelling any fears the musicians might be blunting their gifts by performing in a different venue than they’re used to. “Because their virtuosity is part of the story.”

The play, which has been billed as a one-act theatre-music production, uses specific musical motifs (or musical themes) for each of the show’s four characters (LaVercombe/Enkidu; Moneka/Gilgamesh). LaVercombe’s character, for instance, plays a specific melody on the piano throughout the show. But even when he is not playing, musical motifs that riff off those melodies are played to establish a through-line of sound and expand on the narrative.

In addition to the Tarragon, the show was also workshopped in Minnesota and New York, and though it is being presented in its full form, the co-creators are still tweaking various details. “Jesse has some knowledge I don’t have; I have some knowledge he doesn’t have,” Moneka says. “But exchange is the best way to be complete.”

The notion of dialogue leading to some form of unity amidst disparate elements sits at the core of King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild. “There are a lot of barriers on the surface,” Moneka says of his friendship and work with LaVercombe. “American and Iraqi; Jewish and Muslim; Black and white – they are barriers. But we can share, contemplate and investigate. It’s like with Gilgamesh and Enkidu: they meet and they are somehow automatically connected to each other.”

“We’re coming to understand we’re probably in a very long-term bromance with each other,” LaVercombe says. “And that will continue well past this show.”

Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe