Review by Abbie Gallagher
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that until now, my experiences with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book have all been viewed through the Disney lens. This started with an obligatory childhood screening of the 1967 film, the ice version for my eleventh birthday and finally the 2016 remake.
Therefore, I was very eager to attend Nautanki Theatre Company’s theatrical take on this beloved story, and upon entering the Lennox at Riverside Theatres on Friday night, the stage seemed set for an enjoyable night out. An intriguing set design of scaffolding, ramps, aerial silks, a tyre swing and a trapeze waited behind a large rope netting draped in front, evoking the sense of watching an animal display at the local zoo. The cast milling about on the equipment only incited my enthusiasm. Our key players were beautifully diverse, not only in terms of cultural backgrounds, but age and body types.
After a sponsorship message and the first three minutes being railroaded by a technical mishap, the story began (again). It genuinely pains me to say, I was left a little disappointed.
Taking place in the jungle of India, The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neo Song), a lost/abandoned man-cub who is raised by a pack of wolves. His various encounters with the animals including Baloo the bear (Ups Tupou), Bagheera the Panther (an impressive Neel Banerjee), a pack of mischievous monkeys and more, all the while under threat from the tiger Shere Khan (Steven Menteith). Eventually, Mowgli is sent to a human village where he ostensibly belongs, but quickly finds himself lost between worlds.
The production’s shortcomings are obvious from the start, chiefly being a lack of cohesion. It was difficult to establish exactly where we were in terms of the story, and who was who among the characters. This was not helped by much of the dialogue being lost. The accents are beautiful and authentic, but diction was sorely lacking and I sometimes struggled to decipher what was being said. Additionally, in this large ensemble, some of the performances were lacklustre. It seemed at times the actors were forgetting their lines or waiting for a lighting/sound cue that never came. I’m not sure if this was due to more technical difficulty, a short rehearsal period or lack of professional experience, but whatever the cause, it was distracting.
The overall tone was also inconsistent. Occasional audience interaction spliced intermittently with more dramatic scenes of manipulation, abandonment and true family made me wonder what the ultimate vision for the production was. Usually, the programme would provide insight, but in this case, the digital program was merely headshots and names of the cast. I would have loved to see a director’s note, some production history, more information about each cast member, but all this and more was strangely absent.
Personally, to me it seemed much of the confusion could have been avoided if the story had been told through more physical theatre, music and cultural elements being added. Dialogue is obviously needed at times, but there were tantalising hints of show-don’t-tell theatricality that frustratingly didn’t last more than ten seconds. Being a performer and recreational aerialist myself, I was very excited to see the silks and trapeze and hoped they would be integrated much more than they actually were. There were clearly some very capable performers, but the implementation of the apparatus was minimal, and left me wanting more.
All of this ultimately led to the climax feeling rushed, key themes being lost amongst the clunky dialogue, overly long or maddeningly short scenes and (at times) awkward blocking. In the end, the overarching message about belonging and ‘found’ family felt unearned and incongruent, and I don’t say this lightly.
If you’ll forgive the expression, I came away thinking this version of The Jungle Book was missing some of the bare necessities of theatre. This truly has enormous potential in the right hands. It’s such a shame that it wasn’t completely successful, and I encourage the production company to keep exploring the possibilities of live theatre. They have the pieces. They have an obvious drive and passion. They just need to deliver that little bit more to hit home.
After nearly three years of Covid restrictions, we’re craving hard-hitting theatre. Though written in 1894, The Jungle Book is loaded with fascinating commentary and archetypes that still resonate today. There is much to be explored in a modern world, and much that can be unearthed still. All we need is the creativity and vision to bring it out in the 21st century.