Akram Khan’s Creature review: A Frankenstein’s monster of a mess

It seems almost impossible to accept. Together, one of the world’s greatest chorographers and one of the world’s most vibrant and exciting ballet companies have created the sublimely poetic Dust and staggeringly awe-inspiring Giselle. Their extraordinary alchemy has given us visual spendours and emotional wonders, piercing concepts and powerful storytelling. Tragically, very little of that is on display in Creature. One of the great nightmarish marvels of literature has simply become a nightmare on stage. 

The problems lie both in the excessively self-indulgent intentions and in the pitilessly inaccessible and frequently muddled execution.

The fault for none of this, to be clear, lies with the dancers. The company, from Jeffery’s Cirio’s tour de force as the titular tortured soul to the hard-working corps, do their utmost best with a fatally flawed production.

Reading the programme notes should have been a warning, with portentious discussions of the application of Mary Shelley’s  Frankenstein myth to modern societal and scientific maladies, mixed with Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck opus about “the mental and emotional disnitegration of a man under the pressures of poverty and injustice.”

Throw in a purposefully oppressive, atonal soundtrack, unnecessary female degredation and a storyline so opaque you need the liner notes to make sense of it (and then I swear what happened on stage absolutely did not correspond with the synopsis in one key scene) and you have an evening that had my companion literally curling into herself in her seat while I desperately wondered what had happened to get it to this and, simultaneously, what the hell was actually happening on stage right now. 

The painfully over-concepted concept sets the action in some dystopian near-future (aren’t they all?) where a team of scientists is experimenting on Creature in the Arctic Circle to test the limits of physical, mental and emotional endurance ahead of a potential exploratory mission to find new habitats. He’s obviously not having fun and nor, the show inists, will we.

The tragedy of it all is that the entire production successfully pushes the audience’s limits of physical, mental and emotional endurance, starting with the boomingly amplified grinding synth soundtrack layered with endless looping degraded excerpts from Richard Nixon speeches discussing the space race.

It puts your ears and nerves on edge while a single static set of rough planks nailed high up the walls completes the claustrophic, soul-destroying atmosphere. Yes, it is eerily effective and undeniably impressive when huge planks start to crash down, but by then the whole show has fallen apart anyway.

Cirio is an endlessly whirling and juddering phenomenon, like live electricity, sometimes coiling gently, other times sparking into explosive action or fizzling in feedback loops (beautifully lit with rapid striving). It is a phenomenally demanding role that takes everything a talented dancer can give, yet somehow ultimately give us very little.

At his heart, this Creature craves affection and connection, but receives precious little, leaving the character an endlessly passive victim. Are we supposed to identify with his suffering or have an epiphany and realise we are all the abusers? Either way, it’s a depressing prospect.

Similarly, Erina Takahashi as his keeper Marie, is doomed to portray a character whose miserable and muted existence is then magnified by the toxic advances of Fabian Reimir’s vile predatory Major. Marie has no agency, no personality and an ending so unbearably bleak, it pushed so far beyond pathos I merely felt weary irritation.

Ken Sarahashi delivers his usual flashing lines and scissor-sharp footwork as the sympathetic Captain, but I simply could not work out what happened to his character half-way through Act Two. Did he sacrifice himself, commit suicide, or simply wander out through one of the doors that sometimes lead to the deadly freezing tundra and sometimes just went to the room next door? I secretly hope he had a den where he necked back gin and watched Bake Off re-runs to cope with it all. 

There are brief flashes of choreographical beauty, but nothing we haven’t seen before (and better) in Khan’s previous works. We get Kathak-infused whirls and animal-like gallops across the floor on hands and feet, as well as far too much standing around or gimmicky exaggerated military stepping. Apart from some of Khan’s expected signature group formations, the always-excellent corps is too often relegated to uninspired shuffling in unflattering onesies. 

But seriously, because this is all so painfully serious, the storytelling throughout is unforgivably muddled and murky, all high concept and low content. 

Khan’s works have always made such a glorious virtue of dramaturgy, communicating through a breathtaking fusion of visual, aural and movement cues. Here it consistently fails. Where are we? Why? What is happening? Who is everyone? What are those rosary beads that keep being passed around. Why do all those planks fall off the walls? Dear God, why does everyone keep pointing to the ceiling?

It’s all very well having metaphors and messages, but ultimately the question will remain, why should we care? To this, the show has no answer.

I trudged back out with my ears ringing, my mind numb and my heart empty, feeling deader inside than that poor Creature left dancing alone in the frozen wastes. 

CREATURE BY AKRAM KHAN IS AT SADLER’S WELLS TO OCTOBER 2

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