Performance review: Jungle Book reimagined, Perth Festival

A dystopian-tinged dance interpretation of Kipling's classic work.
The Jungle Book Reimagined. Image is a group of actors on a stage with a backdrop lit blue. They are stretching and crouching, playing jungle animals.

Artistic Director Iain Grandage’s fifth and final Perth Festival is entitled Ngaangk – the Noongar word for “sun”, a female deity associated with warmth, nurturing and healing. In this context the Akram Khan Company’s Jungle Book reimagined is a surprisingly dark and dystopian work – even though it’s described by Grandage in the program as being ‘created with family audiences in mind’.

Khan “reimagines” Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories about an Indian boy raised by wolves as a cautionary tale set in a future ravaged by climate change. Mowgli (in this version, a young woman, played by Jan Mikaela Villanueva) is a climate refugee separated from her family during a storm at sea. She washes up in an abandoned city reclaimed by animals who’ve escaped from captivity. Baloo (Tom Davis-Dunn) is a former circus-bear, Bagheera (Holly Valis) is a tamed panther, the bandar-log monkeys are the traumatised survivors of lab experiments, Kaa is an escaped python from a glass cage in the zoo. In a more significant reversal, the tiger Shere Khan is now a gun-toting human hunter who shoots animals on sight.

As in Kipling’s original, the animals conveniently talk to each other and Mowgli (who also understands and talks back to them) in English (though this device is somehow more jarring onstage than on the page). In Khan’s production they’re played by a cast of 10 dancers (Kaa is represented by a collection of cardboard boxes with glowing red eyes manipulated by a team of dancers), as well as appearing in beautiful line-drawn animations projected onto scrims across the front and back of the stage (Shere Khan is represented by an animated shadow). They’re also “voiced” by a separate cast of actors in a pre-recorded soundtrack – a fatal misstep that effectively kills the show.

There’s no denying the skill of the dancers, or the distinctiveness of Khan’s choreography, which draws on traditional Indian kathak as well as contemporary dance, predictably incorporating a lot of “animal” work on all fours. However, the synchronised coordination of the dancers’ movements with the pre-recorded dialogue is over-literal and reductive; ironically, it also has the effect of making them less like animals and more like humans using mime. 

The set design is relatively minimal (apart from the projection scrims), consisting of a bare stage and a few piles of cardboard boxes (which Khan says is evidence of the show’s commitment to sustainability). On the other hand, the staging is heavily reliant on video and sound (including a Hollywood-style “exotic” score by Jocelyn Pook). All of this swamps the work of the performers and destroys any sense of theatrical immediacy, as well as being somewhat at odds with the overall message about reconnecting with the natural world. 

Read: Dancing with wolves in the national capital

Harnessing Kipling’s stories and characters to the theme of climate change is a noble cause, but reduces their complexity. As a result the show ironically feels more like a work of Victorian-era moralising than the original. It also doesn’t address Kipling’s deeper obsessions with abandonment and foster families, colonialism and exile, and the contradictions between “the law” and more “primitive” impulses. 

All of this is brushed over in Khan’s “reimagining” – ironically so, given the dancer/choreographer’s own cultural heritage as a British-Bangladeshi artist born in London, much of whose work has been preoccupied with his own contradictory sense of home. His autobiographical solo show Desh, which came to the Melbourne Festival in 2012, remains the most powerful work of his I’ve seen. In comparison Jungle Book reimagined feels like a missed opportunity.  

Jungle Book reimagined
Heath Ledger Theatre
Akram Khan Company 

Director and Choreographer: Akram Khan
Creative Associate and Coach: Mavin Khoo
Writer: Tariq Jordan
Dramaturgical Adviser: Sharon Clark
Composer: Jocelyn Pook
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Lighting Designer: Michael Hulls
Visual Stage Designer: Miriam Buether
Art Direction and:Director of Animation: Adam Smith (YeastCulture)

Producer and Director of Video Design: Nick Hillel (YeastCulture)
Rehearsal Directors: Nicky Henshall, Andrew Pan, Angela Towler (Tour)
Dancers: Maya Balam Meyong, Tom Davis-Dunn, Hector Ferrer, Harry Theadora Foster, Filippo Franzese, Bianca Mikahil, Max Revell, Matthew Sandiford, Elpida Skourou, Holly Vallis, Jan Mikaela Villanueva, Lani Yamanaka
Voice Actors: Tian-Lan Chaudhry, Joy Elias-Rilwan, Pushkala Gopal, Dana Haqjoo, Nicky Henshall, Su-Man Hsu, Kathryn Hunter, Emmanuel Imani, Divya Kasturi, Jeffery Kissoon, Mavin Khoo, Yasmin Paige, Max Revell, Christopher Simpson, Pui Yung Shum, Holly Vallis, Jan Mikaela Villanueva, Luke Watson, 3rd Year students of Rambert School

Assistant Animators: Nisha Alberti, Geo Barnett, Miguel Mealla Black, Michelle Cramer, Jack Hale, Zuzanna Odolczyk, Sofja Umarik

Tickets: $29-$89

The Jungle Book Reimagined will be performed until 17 February 2024.

Wolfgang von Flügelhorn is a writer and critic based in Perth.