Following a successful run back in 2017, Nautanki Theatre Company’s adaptation of a classic tale returned this week to Riverside Theatre.
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has gotten a second life in this adaptation by playwright Craig Higginson who offers a contemporary take on the much-loved story, in a set reminiscent of an urban jungle (and quite fittingly held in Sydney’s second CBD, Parramatta).
We’re all familiar with the general plot of The Jungle Book. A small baby, the man-cub Mowgli, is raised by the wolf pack in the jungle and taught how to survive by Bagheera the black panther and Baloo the bear. However, he lives his life in constant danger from the boastful Bengal tiger Sher Khan, among other predators, and is encouraged to return to the human settlement at the edge of the jungle ‘where he truly belongs.’
Nautanki Theatre Company’s production unpacks this idea of ‘belonging’ through powerful storytelling by a multicultural cast, a reflection of diverse Australia.
Neo Song plays the protagonist Mowgli and shines in perhaps the most silent of moments, powerfully utilising the physicality of the man-cub role to distinguish himself as the ‘other’ among the animals. In the first few minutes of the play when he plays a mere baby, it is Song’s little movements, like curiously tapping the floor or playfully caressing Mother Wolf’s hair, that evoke a smile.
He’s supported by Neel Banerjee, the founder and Creative Director of Nautanki Theatre, as Bagheera and Ups Tupou as Baloo to round off the main trio.
Banerjee’s Bagheera is reminiscent of the grumpy, wary panther we all remember, but with the added addition of an almost paternal protectiveness as Mowgli’s mentor.
Meanwhile, the casting of Ups Tupou seems almost too good to be true as the friendly, almost child-like bear. He’s jovial and fun, and so close to the Baloo from the popular 1967 film that one might even expect him to break out into song with “The Bare Necessities” at certain moments.
With the quiet confidence of a tiger and an equally haunting growl, Steven Menteith as Sher Khan is the only character to walk into the audience’s seats, keeping audience members at the edge of their seats as he roams through. Sylwana Skarzynska as the hissing, gyrating python Kaa is also memorable – but ‘less is more’ might work better in this case.
The rest of the cast execute their directions fair enough as the other animals of the jungle, but there’s a certain chemistry that is lacking for much of the play. In some moments, they scramble to come together, and audience members aren’t quite sure where to focus their attention across the set.
The set, too, is an interesting artistic choice. Huge nets divide the actors from the audience, creating the impression of captivity like a zoo, paired with little illumination to create an eerie setting.
It’s clear this production, directed by Joyraj Bhattacharjee, aims to honour the Rudyard Kipling original by staying mostly true to the source text. The creative liberties, however, most powerfully lie in the ending. In this version of The Jungle Book, Mowgli does not simply scare off Sher Khan with fire and return to the village of humans. Instead, he stands up to the fearsome predator and returns with the skin of the tiger to become the next leader of the wolf pack.
While audiences will have to make up their own minds on whether the message successfully pulls through, Nautanki Theatre Company’s adaptation appears to be an allegory of multicultural Australia – about creating your own family where you are, and about embracing and celebrating differences that may exist.