After watching Akram Khan’s Desh (Bengali for homeland) I had to scamper home (though that word needs interrogating) across the river in search of superlatives. Desh, a one-man show performed by Khan himself, is exquisitely eloquent on the subject of heritage, on the complexities of denial and discovery that come with being the child of immigrants. There’s nothing so simple as a revelatory narrative here. Rather, Khan take us on a transfixing, era-jumping odyssey to Bangladesh, suffused with a kind of mesmeric magical realism.
We first see Khan with a lantern on a gloomy stage that’s empty save for a mound, or manhole cover, out of which a spindly little plant grows. It becomes clear that this is his father’s grave (though thankfully Khan senior is still alive in the offstage world). As Jocelyn Pook’s atmospheric score swells, he begins to pound the spot with a mallet. Somehow a familial welter of resentment and frustration becomes visible, tangible. Still, the mound remains resistant. Lighting designer Michael Hulls transports us from an oppressive gloaming to the golden, grimy heat of Dhaka, via white oblongs of pure white light in which Khan performs percussive and plosive Kathak footwork, his fingers embroidering the air.
Later we see Khan as his lippy adolescent self in Wimbledon, facing off against his father, a cook, whose talk of long Bangladeshi grasses prompts a teenage quip about smoking hash rather than reverential curiosity. In one of the show’s most remarkable sequences, Khan embodies his father by tipping his head forward to reveal a face painted on his bald pate. It’s a face that becomes uncannily animated, bouncing upwards and free of the sagging shoulders, then weighed down with worries and woes.
Perhaps the most extraordinarily beautiful sequence in Desh comes directly from a scene of domestic chatter, in which Khan tries to tell his fictional niece a fable about the old country, interspersed with instructions to forget about Lady Gaga and tie her shoelaces. Courtesy of visual animators Yeast Culture and designer Tim Yip, a simple illustration of shoelaces on a scrim snakes outwards to become a river on which bobs a little boat, framed with clusters of mangrove trees patrolled by honey bees and butterflies, a crocodile casually gliding through the water. When an elephant appeared, I started getting teary.
Water and plant-life run through this show, as when Khan loses himself in a shower of silvery ribbons that become the monsoon rain and long tendrils of grass. The ground softened and loosened, Khan excavates the previously unyielding mound, drags out his father’s shirt and wears it. Desh is a profoundly imaginative and resonant piece of theatre, a genuine privilege to watch, especially as Khan will now retire it from his repertoire.
(Perhaps, I thought on the bus back from Sadler’s, I could create my own piece of homeland-related theatre alluding to the time, several years ago, when I was sternly ushered out of the Kaliningrad Oblast tax office, which used to be the family home, having got so far as the foyer. I would wear my great-uncle’s ushanka-hat, before casting it off in mourning for the many muskrats who had no doubt contributed to its sleek snugness in the most brutal fashion. Guilt-laden plates of strudel on Rosenthal china would adorn the stage, against a backdrop of bottle kilns. On second thought, let’s leave this sort of stuff to the masterful Akram Khan.)
Desh was performed at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.