Edinburgh International Festival
Set in a near-future amidst rising sea levels, families wail in fear as they cling to floating shipping containers. In the chaos of a flood, refugee Mowgli is separated from her mother. She falls into the water, passing by massive whales, jellyfish and rubbish. But the journey has only just begun as Mowgli is washed away to an island where the animal kingdom battle to both protect and prey upon her.
In Akram Khan’s innovative reinterpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, dancers take on the characters of wolves, a monkey, a bear and a snake, as their pre-recorded voices are played out. Movement is multi-faceted; gait encompassing the natural animal body movements, whilst their motion includes distinctive personalities and a rhythmic flow. The head of Kaa the snake is embodied using a large square box with reflective eyes and a number of other boxes diminishing in size to create the body. A tight routine enables the simple straight-edged blocks to slither in an impressively hypnotic manner. The choreography of Jungle Book Reimagined shifts between characterful primal gestures where monkeys bounce and beat their chest in unison, to more abstract movements featuring canons, graceful extensions and abrupt glitches.
We are introduced to the natural world using a large green backdrop that illuminates the stage and creates silhouettes of the performers. But there are many signs of dystopian city life that are too close for comfort. Characters disappear under a shop shutter, the entrances to the wings are covered with cardboard boxes, monkeys clap and clamour within a government building decorated with graffiti and protest signs. Miriam Buether’s stage design creates a familiar world that is suffering.
Incredible visual feats are presented using animations projected onto a gauze in front of and behind the dancers. Composed of simple yet playful white-lines, the illustrations form birds that fly across the stage and a sequence where Mowgli reaches up to touch the trunk of an elephant that passes by. Animated rain falls from the sky accompanied by Gareth Fry’s thunderous full-bodied sound design that immerses us into the almost tangible natural world. This environment walks the line between hellish destruction and something of peaceful beauty; Jocelyn Pook’s composition encapsulates this dichotomy with great success. Trance-inducing buzzing distortions merge into choral murmurs and howls that lift and churn the spirit. The amalgamation of audiovisual techniques is awe-inspiring.
There are moments when the actor playing Mowgli on stage is replaced by an animation and we move to a flashback from before this climate disaster. Mowgli covers her ears, frightened at the sound of gunfire as she tries to sleep. ‘This is our land’ she defends, but her mother disagrees – ‘We are guests’. The piece has a powerful tenet running through it – that humans aren’t the protagonists. Earth does not exist for our taking, to be ransacked of its resources, its other inhabitants exploited.
Though the second act could benefit from more narrative direction, overall the storyline is entrancing and reminds us of the tragedy that we are heading towards.
The piece plays in the Festival Theatre with the current auditorium dating back to 1928. A large ornate proscenium arch, gold decorated ceiling and beautiful red chairs are juxtaposed with a performance utilising technology in fresh ways: exploring Earth’s destruction by humanity within a building of such beauty and history is totally arresting.
Written by: Tariq Jordan
Directed and Choreography by: Akram Khan
Music composed by: Jocelyn Pook
Sound design by: Gareth Fry
Lighting design by: Michael Hulls
Visual stage design by: Miriam Buether
Art Direction and Director of Animation : Adam Smith (YeastCulture)
Producer/Director of Video Design : Nick Hillel (YeastCulture)
Jungle Book Reimagined played as part of Edinburgh International Festival. Further information and new tour dates can be found on the company’s website here.