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Until the Lions review at the Roundhouse, London – ‘breathtaking theatricality’

Akram Khan's Until The Lions at the Roundhouse
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This is what the Roundhouse exists for. Like an alternative universe Royal Albert Hall, it plays host to artistic renegades and trailblazing talents who aren’t afraid to go big.

Akram Khan’s latest full-length work may contain just three dancers and four musicians and last just sixty minutes, but it feels like an epic. Based on Karthika Nair’s verse retelling of the Sanskrit saga Mahabharata it is a primal work of mythical proportions and shuddering potency. The story tells of a princess Amba who is abducted by Prince Bhishma on her wedding day and after killing herself is resurrected as a male/female warrior Shikhandi to take her revenge.

The central stage is a huge cut down tree trunk pierced by long canes which are all removed bar one. A blackened human head is then placed on the remaining pole from where it surveys the ensuing narrative. Condensed almost to impenetrability, the story’s key element of female revenge nonetheless comes across, as Chien-Ying Chien is hauled on by Khan while Christine Joy Ritter crawls across the stage like an insect.

Sometimes the movement is painfully slow, stretched out like elasticised tai chi, at others, it snaps and lunges with the ferocity of a striking cobra. Accompanied by percussive rhythms laid down by the musicians who are ranged around the edge of the stage, plus the low groan of electronica that hums and buzzes in the background, the dancers inhabit the space like creatures from another world, recognisably human yet belonging to a civilisation whose origins are buried deep in our subconscious.

Tim Yip’s design is deceptively simple: the stage cracks open, rising in increments to allow smoke and fiery light through the fissures. The sounds are sharp, harsh and occasionally plangent as the singers wail and shout or caress the air with song.

We are a long way from Desh, Khan’s semi-autobiographical one-man show and his last full-length piece. Stripped of video screens and animations and text, this is pure theatre in the vein of Peter Brook, for whom Khan worked as a young boy in his version of the Mahabharata.

There are some longueurs, something which is inexcusable in a sixty minute piece. But the occasionally ponderous sequences are easily outpointed by the shapeshifting dancers and the accumulating sense of danger that grows steadily to a climax of breathtaking theatricality. Both female dancers absorb Khan’s choreography and gesture into their own bodies; the repeated rocking momentum that figures throughout is like watching a human engine starting up before taking off. The one-legged dance during which a performer appears to be trying to chew her own toes is not just an extraordinary feat of balance but strangely chilling.

There are some Exorcist-like elements in the movement, as well as the muscle-cracking contortions of Arthur Pita’s Metamorphosis. But in the end this has Khan’s signature all over it. And that’s all that really matters.

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Overlooked female characters in the Mahabharata wreak revenge in Akram Khan’s distilled epic