A message for today: Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona
January 30, 2023

Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined, with a script by Tariq Jordan and dramaturgy by Sharon Clark, is firstly and mostly an educative and morally-oriented work that seeks to educate and to make adults and children alike rethink the way we inhabit our planet.

The story recalls Rudyard Kipling’s original, but this time Mowgli is a refugee girl who we first meet drifting on a shipping container in waters that have become high thanks to global warming and consequent rise in sea levels.

When she slips from her makeshift raft, she falls into an abyss; a sea full of garbage. Eventually saved by the whales, she finds herself in a world inhabited by Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa and Hathi, and a group of noisy and cheeky monkeys escaped from scientific labs.

Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined
Photo Ambra Vernuccio

They reject and resist the newly-arrived girl but Bagheera insists not only do they have to let her stay, but also that they have to protect her since she is still young and inexperienced. It takes the whole show to make the animals want her to stay with them, however, but they do eventually all show caring affection and find it hard to let her go.

The animals’ wariness of Mowgli is understandable given what they have seen what other humans have done to the Earth and its natural life. Indeed, a strong condemnation of the negative effects humankind has had on the planet over centuries runs deeply throughout the work, in the animals’ voices and the projections. Khan’s deploring of destructive practices and behaviours is powerful and assertive as, time and again, he reminds and sensitises the viewer to the necessity of the well-being of the planet and all its creatures.

Jungle Book reimagined is a beautiful work. The athletic dancers are outstanding. The quality of their expressive movement is remarkable, their interpretation superlative. Individually, they embody the animals’ languages with incredible accuracy and zest, while the group phrases are striking in their splendid, intense and effective execution.

Jan Mikaela Villanueva as Mowgli in Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined
Photo Ambra Vernuccio

The movement in the animals’ solos tends to be somewhat bigger than the words. Their bodies move a lot as they mimic ostentatiously the spoken text. That’s probably an attempt to make the work and its explicit and educative messages more clearly readable for a young audience. Indeed, it is a work meant to speak firstly to children and teenagers, the future inhabitants of this planet. Khan’s intention, to make them aware of the alarming unfolding environmental scenario, and to act differently to stop and then reverse it.

Detailed animations by YeastCulture portray the girl; her mother, who comes back to her through visual memories; the elephants with their wise narrations; and the birds, a regular presence. Rich in imagination and content, they give a valuable extra dimension to the work.

Jocelyn Pook’s music, Gareth Fry’ soundscape and Michael Hulls’ lighting also all contribute enormously to the effectiveness of the show the way it gets its messages across.

Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined
Photo Ambra Vernuccio

The costumes are simple with everyone in similar sleeveless red tops and grey trousers. That does sometimes make it hard to differentiate between the characters, although movement and voice does make each clear.

Greed, exploitation, fear, desperation, concern, hopelessness. Those are the principal themes tacked and veined deeply by Akram Khan in Jungle Book reimagined through text, animation and movement. It does end with some confidence in future generations, however, as we see a girl going out in the world and, potentially, making a difference.

The majestic Gran Teatre was crammed with an audience of all ages. I wonder if this political statement of a work will have repercussions in some of the daily lives and life-long behaviours of at least some of those who see it. The hope must be that it will foster sensibility, and awaken consciousness and the consequent will to take substantive action on what is happening, environmentally and sociologically.

In London, Akram Khan’s Jungle Book reimagined is at Sadler’s Wells from April 4-15, 2023.