A new stage production puts a contemporary twist on Kipling’s classic, writes Colette Sheridan
IN WHAT promises to be a visually stunning show for all the family, Jungle Book, produced by UK-based Metta Theatre company, is staying faithful to the Kipling story, albeit translating it into the contemporary world.
So says director, Poppy Burton-Morgan. The classic coming-of-age story, which has been made into a 2016 fantasy adventure by Disney, inspired by Disney’s 1967 animated film, has, in Metta Theatre’s version, a female in the lead role of Mowgli, the feral child raised by ‘animals’ in an urban jungle.
“In a lot of our shows, if there’s an opportunity to re-gender a role and make it female, we do that because the guys get enough of the good parts. I think it’s amazingly powerful to see a strong young female protagonist leading the story. In a way, the animal characters and even Mowgli, are not gendered roles and can be easily played by males or females.”
The show, an acrobatic, hip hop, rap and edgy experience, has a professional cast of seven and also uses a community cast. Five of the professional cast are dancers and the other two are circus artistes.
“Every so often, there’s a big circus number. There’s only a tiny bit of spoken narration at the beginning and at the end. The story is told almost entirely through dance and circus theatre. It plays out physically and visually.”
The set is a forest made up of lamp posts. Mowgli is raised on the streets by a skate-boarding wolf, a graffiti artist and Baloo who is portrayed as a street sweeper. But gangster rapper, Shere Khan, forces Mowgli out of the street world. She goes back to ‘the suits’ which is the civilised city world, represented as a village in the original story.
“There’s a lot of stuff about class and culture. Mowgli is cast out by ‘the suits’ for being too much of the streets. But the character ends with her realising that she can choose where to belong. She finds her own sense of identity and confidence. Along the way, she meets a vulture who’s a young homeless girl. So there’s a bit about homelessness in the show as well. There’s a little bit of a dig at the banks. If you’re open to the messages in the show, there’s quite a lot there for adult audiences. But for the kids, it’s spectacular circus and street dancing.”
In the original Kipling story — not part of the Disney films — Mowgli is reunited with her birth mother. “In our version, the mother is a kind of business woman.”
Burton-Morgan describes “a wonderful moment where Mowgli goes into a dress shop. Her street clothes are taken off and she’s put into a ball gown. In the dress, she starts off doing a street dance which becomes a kind of waltz. She rejects that and goes back to the street dance. Then she’s put in a big tutu and she performs some ballet. But her street nature is irrepressible despite the ‘suit world’ having tried to make Mowgli conform to a robotic civilised type.”
The original story, written as a piece of social commentary on nineteenth century Indian culture, has been updated by Metta Theatre to portray a 21st century multi-cultural world. “It sends out really powerful messages, particularly about women of diverse heritage. You can see the human aspect of class types and tropes that Kipling was writing about.
“But the core story, the idea of the lost girl or boy, finding out where she/he belongs, will resonate for everyone. It’s relevant now and will be in 100 years time. Some of Kipling’s attitudes and the world he inhabited were not so politically progressive but his writing is beautiful and imaginative.”
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