Everything returns to nature. Or so it’s said.
In a drowned world – a bleak, not too distant future – Akram Khan’s brooding, fierce, and in moments brave re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book finds a slew of animals claiming the urban wastelands. Written by Tariq Jordan, Jungle Book reimagined conjures the expectant imagery of the classical family story but submerges them in a cautionary climate tale where forest fires rage, storms drown civilisation, martial law is the benchmark, and despondency pervades.
The climate catastrophe is here – and there’s only so much hope for higher ground. Mowgli, a young girl, is left clinging to the side of a shipping container as she and her family are subject to the horrors of the open seas to escape the coming storms. But despite her family’s best efforts, Mowgli is tossed into the sea and separated from her family.
Found and saved by a pack of wolves who struggle to overcome their once-iron relationship with mankind, they ultimately decide to relinquish control of Mowgli to Bagheera – an abused big cat, previously kept in captivity by a wealthy owner. There are striking similarities and signifiers which captivate audiences familiar with other versions of the tale, but Khan’s adaptation distorts and manipulates these familiar characters into martyrs of humanity’s abuse of their animal kin. Baloo, a distressed though still comedic Circus Bear, feels a natural inclusion alongside the Bandar-log monkeys who have been experimented on and the imprisoned python Kaa.
Though the solo movement sequences possess enough dexterity and ingenuity to hold attention, the group pieces are Khan’s bread and butter. The synchronicity of the Bander-log’s marching to the beat of corrugated iron gates is both engaging and intimidating – as is the fluidity of the wolf pack. Khan’s choreography, no doubt with aid from dramaturgical advisor Sharon Clark, infuses such an instinctive and immediate sense of character within each dancer.
Even the simplicity of Kaa, reduced to a few cardboard boxes and piercing green eyes, has a tremendous impact under Michael Hulls’ magnificently captivating lighting. Under Jocelyn Pook’s mournful composition, there is a distinct atmosphere of desperation and hopelessness which takes time to gradually elevate and dissipate. Aiding to alleviate the more morose natures is Thomasin Gülgec and Max Revell’s comedic turn as Baloo and the de-facto leader of the Bander logs respectively. Khan’s choreography here is somewhat more playful, and Gülgec’s spins and tricks as the ex-circus bear are a delight. That is until Revell’s clockwork lurches of pain, sharp and definitive, remind us of the grimness beneath the laughter.
Beneath the precise and character-driven choreography and the technical magic of illustration, there’s a vital message that our clock is running out. It’s one which without question grasps older audiences, but its indulgence of the Armageddon plot may be lost on fresh eyes to the story.