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Review: Jungle Book Reimagined at The Festival Theatre

Review by Lisa Lanzi

British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan has returned to Adelaide for three shows only (plus seasons in Perth, Wellington NZ, Singapore, and further afield) with Jungle Book Reimagined which premiered at Curve Theatre, Leicester UK, in 2022.  A deeply moving, message-laden piece in two acts, with a somewhat grim, dystopian flavour, the work features extraordinary choreography fused with theatrical devices and exceptional graphics and animation from Adam Smith (Art Direction & Director of Animation), Nick Hillel (Producer & Director of Video Design) alongside his company YeastCulture.  

Kahn’s layered and visual production is based on Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories originally published in 1894.  The provocation set by the choreographer for himself and the creative team examined the imagined state of a near future Earth where the climate crisis has finally tipped beyond redemption and most of humanity have become desperate climate refugees.  Another ‘rule’ was established to ensure this show would use as few physical props as possible enabling lower cost touring and environmentally-friendly considerations; the charming graphics and video overlays provide vivid scenic components and extra characters from the narrative.

Prior to curtain up, a series of broadcast fragments are played where we hear of forest fires ravaging Northern France, Google shutting down their servers, waters rising rapidly while elsewhere catastrophic drought takes hold, and that martial law is declared.  As the curtain rises, we are confronted by human figures silhouetted in absolute stillness, hands and arms in contorted gestures, like travellers or prisoners trapped in static queues.  Gradually, a video graphic is overlaid to portray well-known European landmarks in crumbling disarray and multiple groups of people fleeing to an unknown future on makeshift rafts as the seas inundate land.  One young girl is lost overboard eventually to find herself ashore in a destroyed city now inhabited by animals.  The animals here are escapees from zoos, private homes, farms, circuses, testing laboratories, and the wilderness.  Now claiming the ruins for themselves, the animals form uneasy alliances.

With the arrival of the young human, the animals argue for and against assisting her and concerns are raised about the presence of a hunter in the vicinity, that “small humans become big humans” and are a danger.  Familiar Kipling characters emerge, the dancers embodying the animalistic traits: Baloo the bear, wolves Raksha and Rama, Kaa the python, Bagheera the panther, and Hathi the wise elephant.  The girl, gender swapped from the male original, is welcomed into the pack and named Mowgli.  Kaa is represented by a row of cardboard boxes manipulated on high by the performers, the first box adorned with glowing facial features.  This may sound a little twee, but within the drama of staging, movement and lighting, worked perfectly well.

Throughout, the dancers execute Kahn’s choreography with absolute conviction and marvellous physical prowess.  Much of the contemporary dance movement is close to the ground: the sinuous prowling of the wolves, the mad capering of the primates, Baloo’s clumsy frolicking and ambling walk.  There are also motifs reflecting Kathak choreography with intricate footwork and rhythmic patterns, particularly in striking and dramatic unison sections.  Clothed in very subdued mostly neutral costuming, the dancers’ extreme gesturing, posture shifts, and ingenious movement sequences enable the viewer to accept and recognise all the animalistic traits.  Contrasting this, Mowgli (Maya Balam Meyong) presents an ‘upright’ presence who does not understand the animals’ language but lives with compassion among them, her bond represented by her moving in harmony with the ensemble.  There are flashbacks too that inform us of Mowgli’s connection with her mother and culture, all projected large through delicate, animated line drawings that fade in and out around the corporeal action.

Another layer of this work is found in the vocal soundtrack of Tariq Jordan’s script.  As the pre-recorded text is spoken (by an array of excellent voice actors) the dancers perform movement that frames, interprets, and enlivens their characters’ prose.  This device took a little getting used to but the skill of the dancers and idiosyncratic, symbolic choreography eased the audience into the trope and appropriate suspension of disbelief.  The strategy was reminiscent of last year’s Festival hit, Revisor from Crystal Pite, in that her dancers also rendered the gist of the dialogue through highly stylized movement.  

Further complexity comes from the layering of the dense soundscape by Gareth Fry and the original, haunting score by composer, musician, and singer Jocelyn Pook: sounds of birds, animals, storms, flowing water, and other surprising snippets mix with Pook’s magical vocals.  How all the creative elements combine to become a complex whole is both highly successful and utterly beautiful creating an original hybrid artefact.  The rather forceful messages about social responsibility, human/animal interaction, and environmental awareness is at times somewhat serious and heavy-handed, but perhaps rightly so.  Also, there are some Orwellian Animal Farm overtones in the second act when the primates begin to chant and beat their chests about freedom, their own greatness, and their desire to take over human capabilities and tools, including fire, and become the dominant ones. 

In reality, words cannot do justice to this work.  The impact of the entire enthralling experience is something that has to be seen first-hand.  Every creative component of The Jungle Book Reimagined combine to transport an audience into an altered reality for the duration; and I suspect the images and themes will continue to resonate after you leave the theatre.

Image Supplied


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