Akram Khan’s last OzAsia show zooms in on one of the Mahabharata’s strongest female characters to highlight an overlooked aspect of the epic text.
'Outwitting The Devil' performs a similar trick on the world’s oldest surviving work of literature, 'The Epic Of Gilgamesh'. But this performance is in defence of the natural world.
As the house lights go down, a ticking like that of a Geiger counter hints at the environmental destruction humanity is capable of and the stage is already scattered with debris when the action begins. But the real destruction is yet to come.
'Outwitting The Devil' forces the haggard older Gilgamesh to witness the deeds of his youth when he was “strong as an axe” and just as destructive, bending the world and its inhabitants to his will. The two versions of the demigod appear onstage simultaneously and if the idea is interesting, the execution is spectacular. Dominique Petit’s gaunt frame carries the memories of thousands of performances, and his surprisingly lithe movements embody entire vocabularies of pain. He is wrought in anguish as he watches the towering, arrogant figure of his younger self strut around as if he owns not just the stage, but the entire world. Both Petit and Sam Asa Pratt are mesmerising, and Khan’s recent retirement from dancing adds another layer to the older man watching the intense power and folly of his youth.
The four other dancers portray animals, spirits and Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s adversary turned companion and though the playbill gives a sense of the story, the surtitles and action on stage are more vague. Fortunately, the dancers are devastatingly emotive. Watching the elder Gilgamesh’s awe of his own power turn to horror as the destruction mounts is captivating. But he is powerless to intervene; through his torment, the most he can do is genuflect and and beg for atonement, and even then he is ignored.
At 80 minutes, 'Outwitting The Devil' is a long dance performance, and one that reveals itself slowly. It seems to float in its own world, shrouded by the mists of time and eventually the haze of burning forests.
It tells us that we are powerless to change the past, but we can learn from our mistakes. The first step is to understand them, and we do that by turning them into narratives and stories. The greatest ones survive, to be shared with future generations. And this interpretation is appropriately epic.