The innovative reimagining of classic stories has been an intriguing theme on the Lowry stage in recent weeks. Just last week we watched a 21st century, beatboxing Oliver Twist in Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist. And this week, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book gets a futuristic retelling in Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Reimagined.
The heart of the story is recognisable and most of the familiar characters are there – Mowgli the man-cub, Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther, the Bandar-log monkeys and python Kaa. But we meet them in a dystopian future where people have failed to address warnings about the dangers of climate change.
Mowgli, here a young girl, becomes separated from her family when flash floods destroy her home, and she is washed-up on the shore of a deserted city which nature has reclaimed. Here the animals live in an urban jungle of corrugated iron, scavenging food out of discarded tin cans. The elephants remember better times and are in no doubt who is to blame. In this version, Sheer Khan is not the one feared. The villain is man and his machine guns.
The change of setting gives the story an extended contemporary relevance, albeit a bleak one, beyond its universal themes of family and friendship. But this updating is not the only unexpected element of the show.
Akram Khan has become synonymous with innovation in dance, and this show stretches the form again, combining arts into an immersive, physical theatre experience.
Central to the piece is a 10-strong cast of dancers whose energy, strength and flexibility see them morph into various animals without a change of costume to distinguish them, apart from Kaa, who has a simple cardboard box, from which shine two green torchlights eyes, for a head. This minimal costuming, while sustainable, can be confusing to watch, especially for children. To make it more accessible there is a voice-track recorded by actors which adds a script on top of Jocelyn Pook’s original score. However, while Sharon Clark’s narrative adds a welcome additional layer to the show, in parts it strays into preachy explanatory text, which feels unecessarily heavy-handed for such a strong cautionary tale.
The wow-factor comes from the dancers’ interaction with the virtual sets, created by Adam Smith and Nick Hillel of YeastCulture, as a series of immersive animations and visual projections. In keeping with the ethos of the story, this design choice is sustainable as well as stunning. It is a fluid mix of real and virtual that fires the imagination, making this show a likely winner for young and older audiences alike.
Akram Khan’s Jungle Book Reimagined was at The Lowry, Salford on 13 May 2023.