• Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez
    Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez

OzAsia Festival, Dunstan Playhouse, 2 November

Akram Khan is no stranger to theatrical reworkings of myths and epics. His first Australian appearance was at the 1988 Adelaide Festival when, as a fourteen-year-old, he played in Peter Brook’s celebrated production of The Mahabharata. Kaash (2002), his earliest full-length work, was based on the pantheon of Hindu gods, and the work he brought to OzAsia in 2017, Until the Lions, returned to the Mahabharata, re-imagining the experience of one of its female protagonists. Outwitting the Devil, which premiered earlier this year, similarly draws on ancient narrative, in this case on the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, dated from around 2100 BC, and considered to be the oldest surviving literary text.

The Epic recounts the story of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu, a tamed wild man, who travel to the Cedar Forest where they kill the forest’s guardian, Bull of Heaven, and cut down the sacred Cedar, destroying the habitat of the forest creatures. In retaliation, the goddess Ishtar kills Enkidu. Khan’s work is specifically inspired by a fragment of the epic unearthed in 2011 in Iraq, which tells of Gilgamesh’s wonder at the immense vitality and biodiversity of the forest, and the guilt he and Enkidu feel at being the agents of its destruction. It is, as the program notes state, "the world’s first environmental poem". In Khan’s production, the bare bones of this narrative are conveyed through Jordan Tannahill’s text, transmitted by surtitles in English and voice over in French.

The work opens in darkness, amid crashing sounds. Down spots illuminate two men with bare torsos in identical poses, seated to the left and right of the stage. Gradually the light picks out a solitary man exploring a series of black boxes lining the back of stage. Several men are seen carrying black tablets—the stone blocks on which the epic is inscribed—and the stage is eventually revealed to be edged with these tablets. Tom Scutt’s spare design of black boxes and tablets and Aiden Malone’s lighting, which consists entirely of down spots picking out groups and individuals through the gloom, contribute enormously to the solemn, monumental mood.

However, it is Ruth Little’s dramaturgy and Khan’s choreography that must be credited for creating a work of almost unbearable emotional intensity. The six dancers, two women and four men, are beyond magnificent: they not only astonish technically but absolutely embody their roles. Khan gives us two versions of Gilgamesh: the younger, powerful and vainglorious, played by Sam Asa Pratt, and the remorseful older man, played by the mature and wiry Dominique Petit, looking back on his sins. Ching-Ying Chien plays the woman Gilgamesh desires, Jasper Narvaez plays Enkidu, and Australian James Vu Anh Pham plays Humbaba. Clad in a golden sari, Mythili Prakash, an exponent of the Indian tradition of Bharatanatyam, is the goddess Ishtar, whose authority Gilgamesh defies in vain.

The movement references the dance traditions of the sub-continent more broadly through facial expressions and highly articulated hands and feet, but is grounded in a fluid—almost boneless—contemporary idiom. At times the dancers embody the forest creatures, running on four legs, preening and arching their backs, as the older Gilgamesh roams the stage, witnessing with horror how his own violence led to their annihilation. Vincenzo Lamagna’s soundscape reflects this green world with sounds of rushing water and crashing rocks, and as it becomes more insistently dramatic helps drive the narrative to its cataclysmic conclusion. After the killing of Enkidu, Gilgamesh eventually dies unredeemed on his sarcophagus.

The final image of the Goddess Ishtar swirling in regal circles represents Gaia, the spirit of the earth, surviving despite the evil depredations of man. As an allegory of the consequences of the Anthropocene, Outwitting the Devil is a work of devastating profundity and relevance. I’ve rarely witnessed a standing ovation like that given this work: not only were audience members on their feet as soon as the end came, they were shouting, screaming even. This is not only Khan’s best work to date, it is a work of genius.

Maggie Tonkin

Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez

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