Creature review – Akram Khan's anticlimactic apocalypse

Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It opens with a deafening rumble and Richard Nixon’s telephone call to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin after they landed on the moon. “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become part of man’s world,” he tells them. Looped into Vincenzo Lamagna’s soundtrack, his words become ominous, breeding discomfort about our ongoing attempts to colonise space.

Space might not be where we expected to end up on hearing that Akram Khan’s Creature, his much-delayed third work for English National Ballet (following the very successful Dust and Giselle), was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But Shelley is only part of the picture. In fact Creature is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster itself, its plot following Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, about a soldier whose body is used for experiments, with a bit of Lord Byron’s apocalyptic poem Darkness too. But extracted from the theme is the peril of messing with technology, nature, and other beings (human or otherwise) without considering our responsibilities.

Creature is rich with prescient, pressing and doom-laden ideas, but you have to read the programme to know what they all are. At the centre is the enigmatic Creature (Jeffrey Cirio), the subject of a research programme; there’s Marie (Erina Takahashi), his downtrodden keeper; a cruel, authoritarian Major (Fabian Reimair), and a lemming-like mass of boilersuit-clad soldiers. The synopsis tells us we’re in the remote Arctic – where Shelley’s Frankenstein story ends, incidentally – hinted at by announcements over the tannoy, “Sea level is…”, “Carbon dioxide level is…” and an evident fear of the harsh conditions outside. This small community, perhaps the last on Earth, is enclosed by high wooden walls (by designer Tim Yip, with effective lighting from Michael Hulls), so what we’re watching is people boxed in with each other, the oppressive systems they create and the misery they make. What might the end of life on Earth look like? Not much fun, Khan warns.

Unrelenting bleakness… Fabian Reimair (Major), Stina Quagebeur (Doctor) and Ken Saruhashi (Captain) in Creature, designed by Tim Yip. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Much of the apocalyptic atmosphere comes from Lamagna’s minimal-ish music, in a state of constant high-volume headache-inducing tension (it quotes Ravel’s Bolero at one point, the ultimate in sustained tension – but that one at least has a lovely melody). It has interesting textures but frequently acts to blur out any subtleties on stage.

Khan’s choreography brings his usual influences from kathak and contemporary dance, but also strays into the ballet dancers’ own territory, effectively incorporating classical steps like the pack of soldiers who pas de chat en masse in tight formation. Cirio gives a tour de force performance, his body glitching, scrolling and corkscrewing at mercurial speed, but aside from the final scenes where there’s room to breathe, he’s swallowed to an extent by the blanket of unrelenting bleakness. The Creature has some moments of tenderness with Marie, who’s compassionate but also resistant and fearful. Poor Marie has a miserable lot in life, giving Takahashi a limited range to play with.

Related: Sung Im Her: W.A.Y review – what a trip!

The show feels unmoored – just as we all will, no doubt, after the climate apocalypse. Everything’s at stake, and yet it doesn’t feel like it. The subject matter, the texts, the concerns are important, and viscerally affecting, but we need to live out those ideas over two hours in the theatre by connecting to the characters on stage. The subject may stay with you, but less so the dance.

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