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The Jungle Book magic needs only the bare necessities

PUBLISHED: 10:16 05 April 2018 | UPDATED: 10:17 05 April 2018

Keziah Joseph as Mowgli and the company in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Keziah Joseph as Mowgli and the company in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Manuel Harlan

The Jungle Book is being brought to the Norwich Theatre Royal stage in a new production that reimages Rudyard Kipling’s classic adventures of Mowgli the man cub for a modern audience. Simon Parkin discovers why it still has magic minus the Disney songs.

Keziah Joseph as Mowgli in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel HarlanKeziah Joseph as Mowgli in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Jungle Book has become synonymous with the 1967 Disney animated classic. But next week Mowgli the man cub and his animal pals, Balloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and Kaa the snake, will be brought to life on stage in Norwich in a very different version.

Rudyard Kipling’s famous stories were first published as The Jungle Book in 1894 but there have been many adaptations since — on both screen and stage.

The latest stage version has been adapted by Olivier winning writer Jessica Swale, and is directed by Max Webster, whose take on Dr Seuss’ The Lorax at the Old Vic was nominated for Best Family Show at the 2016 Olivier Awards.

Dyfrig Morris as Balloo in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel HarlanDyfrig Morris as Balloo in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Kipling’s beloved tale is re-imagined as a hilarious, action packed adventure with a brand new score and script, exploring the universal themes of family, belonging and identity and it features songs by British jazz musician and composer Joe Stilgoe.

“I jumped at the chance to adapt The Jungle Book because it’s such a vivid world - yet, for a writer, there’s so much opportunity to imagine the jungle afresh,” said Jessica Swale, about why she took on what ion the face of it seems like a well worn tale.

“Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the jungle can be anything we choose. It’s a playground, a school, a hideaway, an adventure, so I’ve enjoyed exploring what sort of place this mysterious, delightful, sometimes scary place might be.

The monkey cast of The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel HarlanThe monkey cast of The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel Harlan

‘I loved the characters as Kipling wrote them, but wanted to find new voices which resonate now - funny, bright, dynamic voices, with a little more wit, and greater diversity, in terms of place, tone, gender and culture. It’s a funny, heart-filled roller coaster of a journey which, I hope, will transport the audience right round the world and back again.”

The character of Mowgli first cropped up in Kipling’s 1893 collection of short stories Many Intentions, but his adventures were central to 1894’s The Jungle Book, a series of fables telling the story of the “man-cub” who is raised in the jungle by wolves.

The Second Jungle Book followed a year later and followed the adventures of Mowgli as he grows up, learns the ways of the jungle and goes on a journey of self-discovery, guided by panther turned stern mentor Bagheera, and the free-spirited bear, Baloo.

Keziah Joseph as Mowgli and the company in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel HarlanKeziah Joseph as Mowgli and the company in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Along the way he encounters jungle creatures including Kaa, a python whose seductive voice and gaze hypnotizes her victims; the mischievous and underhanded Bandar-log Monkeys, and the fearsome tiger, Shere Khan, who bears the scars of man.

Jessica admits: “I hadn’t read the book until recently — or maybe only once very perfunctorily as a child. I had to start from the source material in order to begin adapting it for the stage.”

“It was exciting to return to the original book and consider how it might still be relevant to a contemporary audience. I think culturally we associate The Jungle Book with Disney, but of course, it is Rudyard Kipling’s book that is the original.

Rachel Dawson as Kaa in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel HarlanRachel Dawson as Kaa in The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel Harlan

“The challenge was to find a modern voice for it - especially in its politics. I wanted to refocus the tale to celebrate diversity - to talk about the challenge of growing up in a place where you may feel you don’t belong, and how we negotiate that.”

Jessica’s recent successes include Nell Gwyn and Blue Stockings, alongside a growing body of film work, added: “Being a collection of short stories, I chose two which I felt we could use to say something inspiring about community and compassion, about immigration and unity, in language which is lighter and brighter than Kipling’s poetry. It needs to trip from the actors’ tongues. And it should be funny. I wanted to ensure that we never lose the sense of being in the jungle because that’s what people come to see, so I pretty much disposed of the Man Village.”

The cast includes Dyfrig Morris as Balloo, Deborah Oyelade as Bagheera, Lloyd Gorman as Shere Khan, with Keziah Joseph playing Mowgli.

The Children's Touring Partnership production of The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel HarlanThe Children's Touring Partnership production of The Jungle Book. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Keziah admits he did return the Disney version to some inspiration. “I got ideas for physicality from the cartoon,” he said. “I also the recent live action film, as well as reading through Kipling’s original story, which our play was adapted from. That was perhaps the most helpful research in terms of understanding the arc of the story and all the characters.”

Though the Disney songs are missing Joe Stilgoe’s music helps to create its own jungle magic and there is a Portuguese percussionist on stage throughout who provides a central musical focus.

“The rest of it simply comes together through the skills of the cast, especially the five actor musicians amongst them,” he says. “How brilliant it is to be, say, a convincing monkey and play the cello at the same time!”

Jessica and Joe worked collaboratively on the lyrics for the songs, with Joe being inspired by watching scenes take shape during rehearsals.

He is full of praise for the result. “She has written a Jungle Book which is more appealing than any other adaptation I’ve seen,” he says, “It retains elements of Kipling and is mystical and lovely. When I read the script I could hear the style of the songs – variously joyful, sad, dramatic and dangerous.”

Director Max Webster said: “The Jungle Book was an instant classic when it was written over a hundred years ago with its story of Mowgli finding his path through the jungle. Each generation has re-imagined this story as their own, and now Jess rings it right up to date.”

• The Jungle Book is at Norwich Theatre Royal from April 10-14, 7pm, 2.30pm Mar 12/14, £23-£10, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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