Outwitting the Devil is inspired by a fragment of the 12 broken clay tablets which together make up one of the world’s oldest great works of literature, the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Akram Khan’s new work embodies a violent chapter in young Gilgamesh’s life, read and recalled by his older, dying self. It tells the story of Gilgamesh’s domestication of and friendship with the wild man Enkidu, their journey to the vast Cedar Forest, home to wild beings and spirits, and the slaughter of its guardian Humbaba. Fuelled by strength and pride, Young Gilgamesh determines to establish his fame and fortify the city of Uruk as a monument to himself. But the killing of Humbaba and destruction of the forest and its animals angers the gods, who punish the young king by taking the life of his beloved Enkidu. Confronted with the truth and sorrow of human mortality, Gilgamesh passes into history, to become a fragment among the broken remnants of human culture and memory. Outwitting the Devil is a myth of all times, for our times.

Outwitting the Devil began around a table, with an image of the Last Supper. Or rather, it began with Australian artist Susan Dorothea White’s response to Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting, which she titled The First Supper, and which depicted women of many cultures gathered at a table. White’s intention was to challenge the assumptions of a patriarchal religion. Akram Khan saw an image of the painting as a schoolboy and was struck by the diversity of bodies and cultures depicted there. How we tell the stories of our myths matters: our systems of belief and our forms of power are defined by the question of who sits at the table.

Central to Tom Scutt’s design for Outwitting the Devil is a large black wooden box; it suggests a table, and also a tomb - the first as well as the last supper. It is both a meeting place and a monument, and it sits among hundreds of fragments and remnants suggesting the ruins of human culture and the despoliation of the natural world. The idea of the first supper took us back to the origin stories of one of the world’s first ‘civilisations’ – that of ancient Sumer – recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh some 4000 years ago.

Gilgamesh may have been an historical king of Uruk in Southern Mesopotamia. His rule coincided with the rise of large walled cities, stratified urban culture, slavery, warfare, literary writing, and the creation of historical records. His culture was patriarchal and hierarchical; his gods took human form and were thought to have made mankind – like the tablets on which scribes recorded his timeless deeds – out of clay. But people, like clay tablets, like the great city of Uruk and Sumerian civilisation itself, fall and break. Among the fragments of the Epic unearthed in Iraq in 2011 was a clay shard containing 20 previously unknown lines from Tablet V. They describe Gilgamesh’s awe at the abundance and biodiversity of the great Cedar Forest, and Enkidu’s shame at having reduced it ‘to a wasteland’. This is, in effect, the world’s first environmental poem.

Outwitting the Devil is at once a memory and a confession, a puzzle pieced together in the dark that contains the story of who we once were, and may again become.


I remember their screams
Their open mouths
Their faces to the sky
How they came apart
At the joints and the seams
Their faces in their hands
Their faces at night
Their faces in the ground,
I was strong to perfection
A raging bull
A terror
An axe
A prophecy

There was a forest
The smell of rain
I remember
How they fell and broke

I cut down the Cedar Forest
I carried the Forest guardian’s head.
I remember they were tender
There were tender parts
Soft as the hand
Soft as the eyelash
Soft as the bone

Soft as the heart

– text by Jordan Tannahill –