Elemental rawness: Akram Khan’s Outwitting the Devil

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
November 24, 2021

Matters of life and death are central to human existence. Today we seek rational answers, but the ancients, accepting the inscrutable, had a more honest relationship. The 4,000-year-old epic of Gilgamesh deals with survival of both human culture and the environment and Akram Kahn shows that the ancient Sumerian text is also a tale for our times. Outwitting the Devil in its elemental rawness offers a template for existence.

The fragments of stone placed in formal frame around the stage give a sense of sacred ritual. Despite the streams of light from above, it’s a gloomy world, where passions are real and strong, and the dance seismic. Each of the six dancers has an original movement quality, harnessing the energy of a coiled spring and combining fluidity and strength that seem barely possible. Each is committed and alive to the moment, offering new ways to express well known tropes.

The dancers, Elpida Skourou, Mythili Prakash, James Vu Anh Pham, Jasper Narvaez, Luke Jessop and François Testory take on the various characters, but the epic story is as fragmented as the set. Leadership is fiercely contested but strong friendships are forged from past enmity. The gods dispose at will and man suffers the consequence. Nature, here the sacred cedar tree, is destroyed and there is a penalty to pay. The narrative is scattered rather than coherently ordered but each fragment is a precious thing.

Stage images are intensely potent each catching a moment in time and place. Consider the closing scene, as a single warm spotlight catches a totem of stones giving them a purpose greater than they own. A stripe of bright light dissects the backdrop piercing the thick grey mist and silhouetting the darker grey figures. The black slab of dense stone is laid on a bowed neck. Is this a mark of honour or a yoke of servitude? The difference is very slight. Ambiguity is everywhere and answers are few.

Composer, Vincenzo Lamagna, creates a depth of sound that reverberates through the body while Aideen Malone’s lighting increases the mystery as we see, in the Biblical phrase, through a glass darkly. It is left to the awe-inspiring dance to make the contact real and vibrant. It’s an experience not to be missed.