You may have seen Akram Khan recently at the Olympics, performing alongside Emeli Sande and some 50 dancers in his touching and often aggressive tribute to the victims of the 7/7 bombings. Or, for those of you tuning into NBC’s coverage, you will have been treated to an interview with Michael Phelps. Phelps couldn’t be at Sadler’s Wells tonight, but Khan has made a welcome return from the stadium to the stage, slightly smaller but still large enough for his one-man show.

© Richard Haughton
© Richard Haughton

“One-man show” is perhaps misleading. Desh may only feature one performer, Khan himself, but its success is the product of a collaborative dream team. Michael Hulls creates an array of striking lighting designs that at times induce mood, at times structure the space, and at times become performers in their own right. The Oscar-winning Tim Yip contributes the set design, a series of extraordinary props, from a pair of enormous and tiny chairs, to hanging drapes that drop from the ceiling and an undefinable contraption with a variety of uses. Jocelyn Pook’s compositions combine recorded sound and Eastern vocals with humming bass notes; they combine with the potent visuals to produce some stirring scenes. The team of writers, Karthika Nair and slam poet PolarBear complete the team alongside dramaturg Ruth Little.

For all its collaborators Desh remains an intensely personal piece with Khan’s vision and experience at its heart. It is autobiographical, dealing with Khan’s family roots in Bangladesh and the antagonism between his Western upbringing and his father’s Bangladeshi homeland, bringing a bit of his relationship with his father into the mix. The presentation isn’t direct, however, and Khan’s exploration of homeland (“desh” being the Bengali translation) is told through a series of images, experiences and sketches rather than one cohesive performed essay or narrative. Often it is hard to know how one particular image might fit into the whole.

Desh teeters on the verge of indulgence but falls firmly on the right side. The combination of its elements is emotive. I feel a genuine buzz of excitement for the piece to come as Khan shifts his weight from side to side facing a slowly rising curtain that reveals the expanse of the space that engulfs him while Pook’s melancholic score resonates around the auditorium. It is far from the most complex, innovative or meaningful scene but it instils a thrill that I rarely experience in the theatre. Akram Khan himself carries the show with his awesome presence and command of the stage and the theatre.

He achieves virtuosity too in his interaction with the many technical elements of the show, miming to voiceovers and interacting with on-gauze animation with exceptional precision, making Desh ever more impressive in both its execution and conception. Unfortunately, with such a technical beast of a production things were bound to go wrong, and Akram Khan returns to the stage to humbly apologise for a set fault which halts Desh prematurely. Khan has no need to apologise for the show he has just shared.