Jungle Book Reimagined
Script by Tariq Jordan, direction and choreography by Akram Khan
Akram Khan Company
The Lowry, Salford
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The author of The Jungle Book and well-known advocate of colonialisation, Rudyard Kipling, is so out of favour these days his name does not appear in the programme for Jungle Book Reimagined. However, the key word in the title is ‘Reimagined’. The approach taken by director / choreographer Akram Khan is so radical as to push the production beyond the boundaries of pure dance into a hybrid show incorporating extensive verbal passages and major use of animation.
Tariq Jordan’s script is startlingly ambitious and darkly dystopian. Kipling is out but Greta Thunberg (whose speeches are quoted) is in. In the near future an environmental catastrophe renders Mowgli an orphan. Humans run for higher ground as floodwaters rise leaving Mowgli to seek shelter among the animal kingdom. Although the animals are conflicted as to how best to deal with their unwanted guest—many favouring a mercy killing—eventually it is agreed she should be allowed to reside with them on a temporary basis. However, the Bandar-log, apes escaped from scientific research centres, are convinced Mowgli is destined to help them fulfil their destiny of becoming fully human and are willing to compel her involvement. Besides there is one other human in the vicinity who is hunting the animals.
Such a complex plot, in which political points are made at regular intervals, necessitates the use of spoken words to supplement physical communication. It is hard to think of another dance production with so much talking. In order to incorporate the extensive speeches into the dance, the cast move in time to the rhythm of the pre-recorded words as much as to the musical soundtrack. The effect is jerky—the cast behaving like actors in a foreign film badly dubbed into English, moving their limbs robotically miming the dialogue.
Dance is often made memorable by the performance of soloists. Possibly to suggest the communal, tribal nature of the animal kingdom, Akram Khan’s choreography is homogeneous with the ten dancers moving in unison. The effect is occasionally startling, particularly the closing sequence in which dancers form, and emerge from, a gestalt figure or when Bagheera struggles against the hypnotic influence of a python. But the vivid individual personalities who appeared in previous versions of The Jungle Book are lost in the reimagined show. It does not help that all of the cast are dressed identically in red tops and grey harem pants, which makes it hard to identify the individual species.
The animation (by Naaman Azhari, Natasza Cetner and Edson R Bazzarin, directed by Adam Smith) is such a stunning aide to storytelling as to raise doubts as to whether it is necessary to have so much explanatory dialogue. The subtle suggestion of cataclysmic weather in Michael Hulls’s sullen lighting is enhanced by the opening animation touring national monuments made derelict as in Planet of the Apes. Translucent screens in front of and behind the dancers create an illusion of depth, allowing the characters to dodge stampeding animals or worship majestic elephants.
The company show practical commitment to environmentalism and recycling. The programme is not available in paper form and a python is created by skilful manipulation of a collection of cardboard boxes.
Jungle Book Reimagined takes a highly demanding approach to a classic story. At times, however, the sheer ambition leads to a lack of clarity, as if within a complex story there is a simpler and more compelling tale trying to emerge. It seems almost an admission of defeat that the final image in a dance production is an animated character.
Reviewer: David Cunningham