Monday 20 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Xenos at the Festival Theatre, or, The Importance of Narrative

I'd had high hopes of this show in advance based on the reviews and social media commentary. There's no question that Akram Khan is a remarkable dancer. There are also a number of arresting images. But in the end, despite the subject matter, for much of the performance I remained emotionally at a distance.

The subject matter is actually less clearly reflected in the dance than might be imagined. There is one overt reference - a song about the battalion hanging on the old barbed wire - and quite a number of coded ones - but the First World War setting is less concrete than I'd expected. The structure is also episodic - presumably intended to reflect the confusing experience of the Indian servicemen but for this viewer the piece suffered from the lack of a clear narrative. Episodes include the barbed wire one already referred to, the laying of communication wire, and the ever-present threat of death.

Oddly the most visually and aurally satisfying section of the work came at the beginning in a scene which, in retrospect, was presumably intended to symbolise the Indian world the men are leaving behind. There's a swing (sadly never swung on), some chairs, and Khan dances with a gripping beauty to the live on-stage drummers/singers (a superb ensemble, I think led by Nina Harries). Then, in one of the theatrical coups, all this set - carpet, ropes, a suitcase, half a dozen chairs, are slowly pulled backwards and up over the tilted back of the set into blackness.

There follow the episodes at the front, disjointed, often with what seemed to me a limited amount of choreography, and sometimes outstaying their welcome. I think part of the problem with this is the impersonality of it - again I can see the intellectual point that these soldiers are forgotten, that individuality is lost in the maelstrom of war - but I do think it's harder to effect emotional punch without the human connection to individual characters and stories. More effective use of the voice-over narrator might have helped here, but in practice I found Jordan Tannahill's text thin, and in the Upper Circle at times not sufficiently audible to be intelligible.

The work also has a familiar problem of new pieces in not seeming to quite know how to end. There's an arresting image very near the conclusion with Khan standing centre stage halfway up the sloping set, as stones clatter down around him, but instead of going straight to blackout things linger ineffectively.

Overall, I'm glad to have seen Khan perform if this is, as reported, his final solo piece. But I'd hoped to be more emotionally stirred. Worth catching if it tours elsewhere, despite some flaws.

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