Akram Khan Creature at English National Ballet review: Too much head, not enough heart

·2-min read
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It’s alive – and dance fans (not to mention English National Ballet’s financial planners) are breathing a sigh of relief. Akram Khan’s much-anticipated Creature –­ initially inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and based on Georg Büchner’s murder-madness play Woyzeck – has finally made it on to the stage, though thanks to two national lockdowns it has had a somewhat torrid time actually getting there. Was it worth the wait?

The curtain rises on a neglected former Arctic research station, an eerie pale blue light shining through the gaps of its ramshackle wooden walls. Two lone figures stand apart – Creature (the ever-watchable Jeffrey Cirio), hunched and pathetic in one moment, limping and lurching the next as his loyal keeper Marie (Erina Takahashi), mop in hand, looks on. Why he needs a minder soon becomes apparent: Creature is at the centre of a new experimental programme, a guinea pig forced to endure extremes of cold and toxicity to help with Man’s future plans to colonise other worlds as their own collapses around them. His reward? To be abused, then abandoned when the time comes for the brigade to move on.

If Shelley used her gothic horror novel to grapple with the great questions of her time – what it means to be human, nature vs nurture, the limits of scientific knowledge – then Khan uses Creature to address the worries of our own: isolation, climate change, the dangers of consensus (there’s even a nod to the space race currently being fought among megalomaniac billionaires). At times the boldness of his ambitions can dazzle, but too often the evening is marred by hazy plotting and underdeveloped characterisation.

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Creature and Marie’s relationship never quite morphs into anything truly touching (though that final scene is something of a tear-jerker), while potentially interesting secondary characters, such as the Doctor and Captain, are sidelined all too soon. The world created on stage never quite makes sense: in one scene a door is the only barrier to the dangerous environment outside and almost certain death; five minutes later and the corps are skipping through it with heady abandon. And those of a sensitive disposition should come with earplugs at the ready: Vincenzo Lamagna’s pounding soundscape score not only manages to bury the orchestra – it also overwhelms much of the action.

Khan has clearly created a work that addresses issues he is passionate about. But ultimately Creature speaks to the head – when really it should hit the heart.

Until 2 October, (020 7863 8000; sadlerswells.com)

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