Nikolai Foster hasn’t had much sleep since he got to Glasgow. For the past few weeks, the theatre director, born in Copenhagen, raised in Leeds, has been kept up at night thinking about his production of The Jungle Book.
On one level, what’s been bothering him is just the responsibility of putting on a good show, one that could turn out to be a defining experience in some young theatregoer’s life. Like any director, he’s determined to get that right.
But on a deeper level, it’s about Rudyard Kipling’s story itself. Look properly at this classic tale and you’ll find a fable that is rich in the kind of themes that get under your skin. That’s why talking to Foster is like interviewing an actor haunted by playing Hamlet. He’s become possessed by this 120-year-old story and, whether it’s aimed at a family audience or not, its serious ideas have been keeping him awake.
“There are lots of outsiders in this play and I find that very moving and upsetting,” he says. “Mowgli is an outsider, the snake is an outsider and Shere Khan is an outsider. They’ve all be ostracised because they’re different. That’s one of the things that attacks me personally.”
If the director is sleep deprived, however, he’s not showing it. Over lunch in a rehearsal break, he seems to have drawn energy from Stuart Paterson’s adaptation. He talks animatedly about a staging that aims to be both true to Kipling’s spirit and tuned in to 21st century urban life. With a nod to the past, he has worked with Paterson to reinstate the author’s original poems. With an eye on the present, he is setting them to the kind of rhythms more familiar to fans of hip hop and rap.
Compared with the script’s first outing in Birmingham in 2005, which came complete with a set of songs by BB Cooper and Barb Jungr, this version offers us more of Kipling’s verse, as well as the upbeat arrangements of Sarah Travis, a Tony Award-winning orchestrator. “It feels like a more complete whole,” says Foster. “We’re asking our actors to do parkour, free running, hip hop, body locking and also play instruments, so we’ve gone for a garage band sound with found objects, bins and dustbin lids.”
The music chimes in with the approach taken by Takis, the award-winning Romanian designer, whose set has as much in common with inner-city skate parks and concrete underpasses as it does with the wilds of Kipling’s jungle. It might sound a surprising choice, but Foster says it’s in keeping with the spirit of this pioneering theatre. “The Citz is renowned for creating challenging, exciting and anarchic work,” he says. “So I thought, stuff the jungle, let’s make it an urban, contemporary jungle, let’s make it a playground. It’s a world where we suggest a jungle.”
In Foster’s production, Jake Davies plays Mowgli the man-child, who is brought up by wolves before encountering Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and Shere Khan the tiger. As this feral boy approaches adulthood, he must decide whether to stay in the animal kingdom or enter the domain of his fellow human beings.
For many people, the story is inextricably associated with Disney, but the director hasn’t watched the animated version since childhood and has made a point of avoiding it. When it popped up on a shop’s TV monitors recently, he swiftly walked the other way. He’d rather put his own stamp on the story than be inadvertently influenced by such a famous retelling. “What we are blessed with – and I mean truly blessed – is Stuart Paterson’s adaptation,” he says. “It’s brilliant. It’s uncompromising, straight-forward and direct, and it doesn’t patronise the young audience at all. It’s a serious coming-of-age drama. It’s about boy to man. It deals with birth, rites of passage, being educated, being adopted, the challenges we face as adults and the decisions that define us.”
The ideas don’t stop there. He sees Kipling’s story about men intruding on the animal world as a metaphor for colonisation. He hears many resonances of Shakespeare: King Lear in the death of an empire; Richard III in the limping Shere Kahn; and The Tempest in the story’s magical elements. And he is fascinated by the author’s theme about adoption. “There is lots of talk in the news about how a child’s nurture is affected if it is adopted by somebody of a different religion. What The Jungle Book does so brilliantly is to suggest a child, regardless of race, culture, religion, background and class, if they’re brought into a new environment and given love, they can achieve anything.”
When it comes to representing the jungle creatures on stage, the director has some useful experience. Five years ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse, he directed an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and was faced with a similar challenge. How do you get people to play animals without looking silly? His solution is to avoid attempts to walk on four legs and to underplay the animalistic mannerisms, focusing instead on character. In that way, the audience focuses on the drama instead of the pretence.
“When an actor creates a character, it is an imaginative and psychological response to who that character is, and when the actor starts to get a sense of that, their physicality changes,” he says. “I learnt on Animal Farm that we didn’t need to have sticks to make them into quadrupeds, we just needed an extension of the same methodology. The animal world is exciting to play because the stakes are high and it’s very immediate. You take the physicality you would normally use two or three steps forward. The more human these animals are, the better because it’s a human narrative. It just needs a subtle shift in the way they move.”
He adds: “This is a very complex story told very simply. If we tell it with clarity, flare and movement then the audience will start to challenge themselves with the complexity of what Kipling was writing about.”
• The Jungle Book, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 30 November until 5 January, www.citz.co.uk