Akram Khan's Jungle Book reimagined
Images: Screenshots from Company Trailer
Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Re-Imagined
Akram Khan Company
Sadler’s Wells, London,
6 April 2023
Reviewed by Sanjeevini Dutta and Gopa Roy
A tale for our times, Akram Khan’s reimagining of the Rudyard Kipling classic Jungle Book, popularised by Walt Disney is given a make-over in darker shades. The human child raised by animals in an Indian jungle becomes in this piece a child separated from her mother by the rising waters, and who finds herself with an assortment of animals in the ‘jungle’ of a flooded cityscape. The particular becomes the universal, the past and present prophetic of a future that is already upon us.
The rising oceans against the backdrop of incessant rain that drown the mighty skylines of the world have sent the humans clambering onto rafts to seek to higher ground, leaving the animal world, freed from zoos, glass cases and experimental laboratories, to colonise the cityscape. The striking opening has silhouetted figures etched on a green cyclorama, bending to pick up a precious load. A hymn/mantra of great beauty and depth (Jocelyn Pooks, ‘Exodus’) suggests that this is no ordinary time – mankind is poised at the crossroads.
Flood myths are found across many cultures – often as a retribution for mankind’s behaviour – and the flood in this story speaks to these myths. A deluge sends people scrambling and they climb onto flimsy rafts on rolling seas, the enduring image of which has been on our TV screens and in news media since the war in Syria, which brings the story to our present day. There will, we know, only be more refugees as the impact of climate change is felt more and more. The animations of the drowning skyline, the ocean and raft are marvellous aids to the storytelling. Later we see herds of giraffe and elephants sweep across the screen, breathtaking in their majesty.
A little girl slips off the raft and plunges into the ocean and sinks slowly, amidst the polluting detritus of masks and cans, alongside the fish. She is nudged out of the water by a whale – echoes of the Jonah story – to land alone in a strange land inhabited by stranger beings. A wolf pack presents her to the council of animals, echoing the decisions those in authority have to make about whether to accept refugees. She is captured by the monkeys, the Bandar-log, released from the laboratories and keen to learn how to attain the power of humans; but is rescued by Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther with the help of Kaa the python. The pace is relentless: the little Mowgli cannot let her guard down for an instant. There is a sense of foreboding and nail-biting tension. When things get really hairy for Mowgli, she recalls her mother’s gift of a box at the bottom of which is a mirror.
She also learns from her mother how to use a bow and arrow. It is a shock to the audience to see her drawing a bow, just as we have seen the animals and their connectedness with us. Although she hates hunting her mother reminds her that she may need the implement to protect herself and her community. It is an example of the complex forces at play. In the flashbacks we see men with guns terrorising the villagers. ‘It’s the pressure on the land’, her mother explains. But the land does not belong to us, ‘we are guests’.
The dancers inhabit the animal bodies with great skill and grace. They do not wear animal costumes, they become the animals in their movement. The fact they and Mowgli are all wearing very similar costumes reinforces their – our – interconnectedness and commonality. They are mostly on all fours, tumbling and flipping, stretching and spinning on their backs. Their speech is physicalized – they use their entire body when they speak. Characterisation is developed through movement, clownish Baloo, a spiky and zapped monkey whose hair stands on edge as if just electrocuted, maternal long-limbed and feline Bagheera. The dancing bodies transform from animals, to humans, to holders of weapons. The ensemble work is flawless: movements are taut, purposeful and powerful. The complexity, variety and patterning ensures that there is not a loose moment. Jocelyn Pook’s score is rich, varied and resonant, drawing on a world of musical cultures, as the story draws on myth. The stage design, animation and lighting come together to create an extraordinary and powerful experience.
This is a complex and beautiful piece of storytelling – dark, prescient, holding no easy answers. As the mirror in the box suggests, we have to look at ourselves. This Jungle Book is visually stunning, musically profound and danced to perfection.