Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Reimagined is a show of the highest qualities in its execution, and a theatrical experience not to be missed.
📍Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
📅 Thu 25 – Sun 28 Aug
🕖 Running time (approx.): 2 hours 10 minute
🎬 Director/Choreographer: Akram Khan
✍️ Writer: Tariq Jordan
🎵 Composer: Jocelyn Pook
🔊 Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
💡 Lighting Designer: Michael Hulls
⚒️ Visual Stage Designer : Miriam Buether
🎨 Art Direction and Director of Animation: Adam Smith (YeastCulture)
📼 Producer/Director of Video Design: Nick Hillel (YeastCulture)
🎞️ Rotoscope Artists/Animators: Naaman Azhari, Natasza Cetner, Edson R Bazzarin
🎭 Wheelchair Accessible Venue, Wheelchair Accessible Toilet, Audio Enhancement Assistance Dogs Welcome
The acclaimed Akram Khan compan’s Jungle Book Reimagined is a wondrously conceived production, and a marvellous visual feast. Writer Tariq Jordan’s world is flooded by apocalyptic climate catastrophe, scattering humans upon the waves, and leaving the animals to resume dominion of the land. Mowgli, thrown from the raft carrying her family, is washed upon the shore, there found by wolves, adopted, and taken before a newly appointed council of the beasts.
The fauna, escaped from zoos, and laboratories have differing opinions on what should be done with this remnant of their persecutors, but soon enough Baloo the Bear, and Bagheera the Panther are placed in charge of our heroine, and charged with keeping her safe. They will journey through this quite bleak post-industrial world having adventures, some comical, some deadly, and all told in a language of dance and highly physical theatre.
Akram Khan’s choreography is a gorgeous blend of disciplines, deftly and enthusiastically embraced by a talented troupe. Though the individual characters are undistinguished by costume in the main, their distinct physicality and mannerisms make for natural recognition. The quality of movement is continually exhilarating, and critically efficient: these are animals which move with bestial fluidity, and grace. The shifts into dance are easy and purposeful, always serving the story and manifesting ever more impressive spectacle.
The storytelling is assisted by an impressive array of projected content thanks to Adam Smith, Nick Hillel, and a fine team of artists. Tasked with opening the play with an animated account of the world’s fall, and Mowgli’s separation from her family, the visuals occupy the entire aperture of the stage thank to an invisible screen front of stage. Thanks to Jocelyn Pook’s atavistic, and lamentation-laced soundtrack, it’s an epic beginning. This artful tech is used thereafter to augment the narrative, not supplant it, and prove an elegant means of bringing elephants amongst other oversized elements to stage.
The dialogue, and there’s plenty of it, is spoken in voice-over, whilst the talented troupe skilfully clown in sympathy. Richly, and distinctly characterized, it’s a storybook touch, whilst avoiding wireless mics, and breathless speech. There’s even a little ingenious puppetry to bring the snake, Kaa to stage via cardboard boxes (much of the action takes place in abandoned warehouse spaces). The snake’s dance and introduction is certainly a highlight; a low tech, but high skill exercise in character creation.
The world as designed by Miriam Buether, and Lighting Designer: Michael Hulls, is a washed out land, painted in grungy shades. The narratives takes place against a backdrop of submerged cityscapes, and dark, abandoned buildings. It’s not a world in which happy endings are likely. It’s prettily, and cleverly constructed, but definitely sets a tone.
Thankfully the love between the heroic trio of Mowgli, Baloo, and Bagheera offers light, and love to illuminate the wet, and dark world they trot through. It’s the sole hope offered to counter this worst-case scenario warning against humanity’s continuing devastation of the planet. It’s strength in cooperation and mutual respect between all living life Jordan & Khan set against the production’s central villain. Not Shere Kan, the tiger — notable by his absence–but mankind, those who remain with rifle in hand, unsatisfied with only partial world devastation.
As with the Disney take on the Jungle Book, Kaa the snake is not a friend to Mowgli, as in the original tales. More ambiguous than Sterling Holloway’s 1967 cartoon villain, it’s still a far cry from the wise mentor offered by Kipling. In a rendition so comfortable with subverting expectations, it would have been braver to defy the expected snake narrative.
There’s a more interesting take, however, on the Bandar-log Monkeys who kidnap Mowgli as expected, desirest of being like ‘you-oo-oo’ (Sorry). Former victims of scientific testing, they wish to rise up and supplant their once masters, rather than being witless (and probably racist) cretins a la Kipling or Disney. This is a clever conceit, and offers narrative richness consistent with the production’s somewhat desolate ambience.
Ultimately the play settles on a maudlin ending, which whilst foreshadowed by the qualified victories of our heroes to that point, still feels a little low energy for such a pulsating piece of theatre. It’s hard to avoid feeling such an ingenious team of creatives could conceive something more captivating, particularly in a world populated by rationally conscious fauna. In a show explicitly aimed at audiences 8+, particularly one so visually, and narratively dark, a little more is probably required to cast a lasting spell. It’s still a show of the highest qualities in its execution, and a theatrical experience not to be missed.
(Image Credit: Ambra Vernuccio)