Forget the Technicolor glory of Disney’s movie, Stuart Paterson’s lively stage version of The Jungle Book gets back to the poetic truths of Kipling’s original, as he tells Mark Brown
Say the words “Jungle Book” and the chances are the first thing you will think of will be, not the original stories by Rudyard Kipling, but Wolfgang Reitherman’s 1967 Technicolor animation for Disney. The movie, with its delightful representations of the intrepid “mancub” Mowgli, his anarchically avuncular friend Baloo the bear, and King Louie the lunatic orangutan who sings the film’s most famous song, ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, is an undoubted icon of modern culture.
“I loved the Disney film when I was a child, and I still think it’s really enjoyable”, says Stuart Paterson, children’s theatre writer extraordinaire and the man behind the stage adaptation of The Jungle Book, which is the latest Christmas show at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. Great though the movie is, he says, his play is a very different proposition.
For a start, unlike the film, his Jungle Book is rooted very strongly in Kipling’s writings. First staged, to great acclaim, by the Birmingham Stage Company in 2011, Paterson’s play comes from a deep respect for the original tales and their author.
Prior to accepting the commission to write his adaptation, the writer reread Kipling’s book.
“I thought it was just fantastic”, he remembers. “I didn’t know what a great writer Kipling was. Rereading the stories, I felt moved by them. I didn’t really expect that. He’s a very brave and powerful writer.”
The author believes that the brilliance of Kipling’s writing is often overlooked due to the modern view of him as a champion of British imperialism. “So many of us have these lazy preconceptions in our heads that he was just some kind of colonialist”, he says. “Of course he was a colonialist, on some levels, but most British people at that time were. So, it’s really stupid to dismiss him on that basis.”
Paterson admires The Jungle Book’s capacity to connect to universal elements in human experience. “Mowgli is a man in the jungle and a wolf in the village. So, there’s nowhere for him to go. The only things he has are his own courage, independence and free spirit. There’s something bracingly truthful in that, it’s about what life is actually like for all of us.
“There’s not a wee girl who comes out with a pot on her head, like in the Disney film. Nor is there some kind of wonderfully uplifting happy ending, but there is an amazing degree or humanity and truth. God knows if we’re going to be able to capture that with our production, but we’re going to try to.”
The director tasked with trying to capture that essence for the Citizens is acclaimed, up-and-coming young theatre maker Nikolai Foster. He’s joined by Tony Award-winning orchestrator Sarah Travis, who is tailoring the original Birmingham Stage score by BB Cooper to the needs of the new production in which the Citz promises, “heart-stopping acrobatics, hip-hop dance moves and rap.”
Paterson is palpably excited by the new musical collaboration. “I’d always wanted to use Kipling’s own lyrics”, he comments, “but most theatres are put off by them because they’re quite complex. There’s this ridiculous view that children can’t deal with anything that’s a bit complex… When I say I’m using Kipling’s lyrics, some people look at me as if I’m mad.”
Nevertheless, following the Birmingham production, the writer found that Cooper actually agreed with him about Kipling’s lyrics. Consequently, Citizens audiences will be getting a rich, upbeat mix of the original songs from The Jungle Book, combined with Cooper’s music and Travis’s new arrangements. “Sarah [Travis] has had the freedom to develop and arrange these songs according to the talents of the cast”, Paterson explains.
“That is just the best way of working. The music becomes something that’s at the heart of the show, rather than being something that’s tacked on… It’s lovely when you see something being done by people according to their own skills and passions.”
The writer is equally excited to be returning to the Glasgow theatre. “It’s lovely to be back at the Citz”, he says. “That’s where I had my first plays done, in 1981 and 1982, when I was 26 and 27. It’s very strange being back there, I’m pushing 60 now. When I went through the stage door recently, it was like those first plays were done yesterday.”
Paterson is glad to see that his passion for the Gorbals playhouse is shared by director Foster. “When he first came up to Glasgow, Nikolai spoke very movingly about his knowledge of the Citizens Theatre. He said that, obviously, he was too young to see a lot of the stuff [staged during Giles Havergal’s 34-year directorship], but he grew up knowing about it as a kind of European powerhouse. It was a genuine thing, he wasn’t trying to flatter anyone. I feel the same way about the Citz. It got me involved in the theatre. It just had that sense of mischief and cheek that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
“To me, most theatres feel like ships in a line”, says Paterson, “and the Citz is like a pirate ship.” Which is as good a reason as any to come back to the Glasgow theatre for the revival of the adventures of a brave and resourceful outsider such as Mowgli.
The Jungle Book is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow from November 30 to January 5. For further information, visit: citz.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 24, 2013
© Mark Brown