Edinburgh International Festival


Jungle Book re-imagined

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Mary Brennan

Four Stars

The scene is set, even before the curtain rises with voices issuing strident alerts of imminent catastrophe. Seconds after the curtain rises the stage is awash with relentless tidal waves – brought strikingly to life in animated line drawings by YeastCulture – and our old world is gone.

Not only humankind is fighting for survival. The animals, having lost their natural habitats, now shelter in the ruins of concrete jungles – which is where a little girl lost (aka Mowgli) finds herself at the mercy of a pack of wolves.

Mercy… As Rudyard Kipling’s vivid stories (from 1894) often reveal, Man has not always shown mercy, let alone respect for nature. This undercurrent of mutual mistrust is just one ethically-infused element in Akram Khan’s multifaceted dance-theatre version, Jungle Book re-imagined.

A visionary creative team that includes composer Jocelyn Pook comes together to create a cinematic flow of shifting atmospheres that virtually colour the monochrome staging while the voiced-over narrative (written by Tariq Jordan) frees up Khan’s ten extraordinary dancers to bring lithe expressiveness and an urgent intensity to characters and incidents alike.

If, at times, the narrative is over-wordy and a tad tendentious it nonetheless carries the climate change warning home to us.

And in the second half, where the power-hungry Bandar-logs mimic Man-as-political-leader playing to the gallery, the frenzied physical movement communicates beyond words.

Kaa, the python, is a cardboard box with glowing eyes – a canny echo of child’s-play make-believe – whose hypnotic dance allows Baloo and Bagheera to rescue the kidnapped Mowgli. Khan’s choreography puts the Kaa in Kathak! Brilliant.

Yes, there is a bleakness you won’t find in Disney movies, but there is a passion to inform that has a lingering power beyond cute. And a reminder that – forbye Mowgli and Greta Thunberg – we all need to bring about change.