News bulletins announce forest fires in northern France, Google shutting down its servers, martial law declared. Water levels are rising: seek higher ground. Climate catastrophe is the backdrop for Akram Khan’s cautionary reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Mowgli and her family are left clinging to a raft before she’s tossed into the sea and found by animals who have taken over abandoned land – elephants and giraffes escaped from zoos; lab monkeys freed from testing facilities. This opening is beautifully rendered in line-drawn animation by Yeast Culture (who memorably worked on Khan’s Desh). You see the top of the Eiffel Tower peeking out from choppy waters – but there’s no escaping the bleakness of the theme and a certain despondency pervades even in the show’s more comic moments.
Khan is working here with dramaturg Sharon Clark and writer Tariq Jordan, and where some of his recent choreography has suffered from narrative ambiguity, and although some plot points rush by, the message here is set out plainly: that we are guests on this land and must look after it, respecting animals and nature. The production casts actors to act and dancers to dance. The script is delivered in voiceover, a choice that frees the dancers up to move fully, but it can lead to a disconnect between voice and performer – another layer to compute, especially in the lively confusion of conversation. The dancers all wear the same clothes (red vest, grey harem pants), which doesn’t help delineate characters, though you can respect that simplicity is a deliberate if uninspiring choice. The python Kaa, for example, is made from a few cardboard boxes.
There are, however, some great scenes: the flashback animations give personality to Mowgli and her mother (Mowgli is virtually mute elsewhere, as she doesn’t speak the animals’ language). There is power when the text stops and we’re left with Jocelyn Pook’s wistful and mournful music, and the dancers juicily squeezing animalistic movements from their bodies. Thomasin Gülgec is a standout. Khan adds playfulness to his kathak-rooted style, especially in the character of Baloo, an escaped dancing bear.
There’s an important message here, but the post-apocalyptic gloom means that while this is a show made for all ages, it’s unlikely to jump off the stage enough to grip a younger audience.