Monday, 11 April 2016

Chapter 138: Inside rehearsals for Metta Theatre's "Jungle Book"

Mowgli (Natalie Nicole James) and Homeless Vulture Vee (Nathalie Alison) in Aerial Hoop duet
Credit: Richard Davenport

There was a fascinating article in Exeunt Magazine recently ( - click here) by Poppy Burton-Morgan, exploring the possibilities that circus offers to unlock a narrative. I particularly liked the distinction she made between the more low-key acrobatics that drive the action forward and the show-stopping tricks that serve to underline moments of crisis or heightened emotion. Director of Metta Theatre an innovative theatre company, Poppy Burton-Morgan has been incorporating circus elements into productions for the past five years. Now Jungle Book is about to go on tour using a fusion of circus, street dance and hip hop to transpose the story to the contemporary urban jungle. Skateboarding, beat-boxing, aerial hoop, chinese pole, krumping, hula-hooping, acrobatics, locking and popping… the language of the street in all its vitality will blow open this classic tale about pack mentality, who’s in and who’s out,  that is socially and politically relevant now more than ever.

Kaa (Nathalie Alison) on Chinese Pole
Credit: Richard Davenport
I was delighted therefore to talk to Poppy Burton-Morgan at a rehearsal on Friday, both to hear more about how she puts theory into practice and because it sounds like a terrific family show, and I have three little monkeys to entertain. Not so little, Mum. Ok, noted. In the show, there is a very creative use of circus apparatus, camouflaged into the streetscape and I arrived just as a spectacular aerial sequence conjuring up the fire scene had just finished. When I heard this was towards the end of Act 1, I was confused. Hang on, Act 1? Surely that should be the end when Mowgli, having seen off a flaming terrified Shere Khan, then follows the doe-eyed girl back to the village to live happily ever after.  The scene was firmly imprinted in my mind, The Jungle Book being first film I ever saw at the cinema. But Poppy Burton-Morgan, also the adaptor, has taken her cue from Kipling, rather than the cartoon. Her version is faithful to the original that continues to chart Mowgli’s integration into the “civilised” world, while in a neat twist, and in a further two fingers up at Disney*, has female leads and gives them a (street)credible voice. Mowgli herself, played by National Circus graduate Natalie Nicole James, is given the final word at the end. 

Rather than being animals, the other main characters have their own street identities informed by their signature animal traits, and while being multi-talented they each have their trademark street art as well. So, for instance, the sinuous and seductive Kaa is on the game, wrapped round a lamp-post (chinese pole), Bageera is a shadowy parkour ninja and graffiti artist, Baloo is a beat-boxing street cleaner, Shere Khan the menacing Gangsta rapper, the wolves Akela and Raksha are skateboarding/breaking, and there is also a chorus of wolves and monkeys using those skills. The dynamics between the characters and their respective tribes all are mirrored in their counterparts in the “civilised” world of suits. 

Left to right: Ellen Wolf (Raksha), Stefan Puxon (Baloo), Kloé Dean (Bagheera),
Matt Knight (Akela), Dean Stewart (Shere Khan), Nathalie Alison (Kaa)
Credit: Richard Davenport
The scene I saw was a dance sequence, and I was struck immediately by the energy generated by the dancers and the music, an original score composed for the play. It’s vibrant, dynamic, and crucially will hold the attention of children and ensure the narrative will take them along for the ride. There is so much in there as well for the adults to reflect on: this a parable about negotiating spaces in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society, exploring power imbalances at play, the place of the individual and the power of artistic expression to transform lives. 

“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky; And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it may die.”
Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

“Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys always have the advantage and that is too much to bear.”
Alvaro Enrique, author of Sudden Death

In the hands of Metta Theatre, Jungle Book is is an opportunity to rewrite the script. 

Metta Theatre's Jungle Book is on tour in the UK from Thursday 21 April, beginning in Windsor. It comes to London as part of Wonderground on the SouthBank from 13-28 August. For listings see - click here.

Credit: Richard Davenport
Left to right: Ellen Wolf, Natalie Nicole James, Kloé Dean, Matt Knight

*Ah, the magic of Disney. While there is the illusion of female protagonists from Little Mermaid to Frozen being more and more prevalent nowadays, a recent linguistic study has shown they actually far fewer words than supporting male characters ( - click here). 

Gender in circus is a hot topic at the moment. On Twitter recently @ellie_dubois, creator of Ringside (see previous post) screamed out: WHERE ARE ALL THE AMAZING CIRCUS SHOWS FILLED WITH WOMEN? WHY DO I SEE SHOW AFTER SHOW AFTER SHOW WITH MALE ONLY CASTS OR ONE TOKEN WOMEN? The fact that it has been observed that three of the main shows in Circus Fest at the moment are entirely men will, I’m sure, come up in discussion at the Circus Fest Salon on Gender on Tuesday, 12 April at the Roundhouse ( - click here) - tickets still available if you want to join the discussion and raise your voice. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.