A bold new take on classic Kipling story

A scene from The Jungle Book
A scene from The Jungle Book
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Forget everything you thought you knew about Kipling’s The Jungle Book. One of the world’s best directors is bringing it to the stage. Arts editor Nick Ahad talks to Liam Steel.

Liam Steel might be small in stature, but he has one towering reputation. He has worked with some of the world’s best regarded theatre companies and with some of the world’s biggest movie stars – and this Christmas audiences will have the opportunity to see his work first-hand at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Responsible for staging the epic musical scenes in the Oscar-winning movie version of Les Miserables, he is also the man who brought Ben Hur into stadiums across the UK and Europe. He’s worked with Cirque du Soleil and was involved in the Olympics ceremonies. I know all of this because of his CV, but it would have become immediately clear when Steel gave me a backstage tour of the latest production he is bringing to the stage. The Jungle Book is clearly being made for the stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse by someone who understands scale and understands that the Quarry Theatre, the centrepiece of the Leeds venue, needs to look epic.

“It’s such a great stage to work on,” he says of a setting which has defeated many directors over the years – most don’t quite grasp how to make best use of a stage which engulfs such an enormous amount of space.

“The scope to make something that looks huge and brilliant is really exciting.” One of the secrets the staging of The Jungle Book will hold for audiences is a recreation of a jungle that “will look like it stretches to infinity”. Steel’s arrival at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has been a long time coming.

Audiences saw some of his design work when highly respected physical theatre company DV8 came to the theatre early last decade. Since then the stars haven’t quite aligned.

“I knew James (Brining, the Playhouse’s artistic director) so he asked me to come in for a meeting. He asked me what I might be interested in working on at the theatre, and I told him that I would be really interested in doing a big Christmas show. I had a few ideas and he wondered if I’d thought about The Jungle Book. The truth was, I hadn’t – I was actually thinking about Beauty and the Beast. I was going to New York to do some work out there and had both books with me. By the time I landed I had read them both and The Jungle Book just really did it for me.”

He’d found an enthusiasm for the project and realised it was definitely the story he wanted to tell. “There is so little work out there that is actually something the whole family can genuinely enjoy. Parents begrudgingly get dragged along by their children to Christmas shows, but I thought this was an opportunity to do something that would actually genuinely appeal to the whole family.” If, by the way, you’re thinking about Disney’s version of the classic Rudyard Kipling story, you’re best off leaving those preconceptions at the door when you go see this show.

Not only has the show been the beneficiary of a whole new book of music, written by highly regarded Asian musician Niraj Chag, Steel has found something else with his version of The Jungle Book. He has brought out, he says, the much darker undertones to the story which Disney, understandably, decided to ignore. “The Disney version was sanitised. There is much more to the story than most people might realise. It is much richer, far darker and actually has a lot to say.”

As well as bringing in the richness of the story that might have been laid waste by the vision of the Disney corporation, says Steel, he realised that even though Kipling’s collection of stories are over a century old, The Jungle Book has much to say to audiences in Britain in 2013.

“It’s a story that really relates to now. The themes are so relevant. It’s about a little boy being brought up somewhere that looks multicultural, somewhere like Leeds, where young people are completely comfortable with different cultures and religions being a part of their lives. That’s what this story is about – it’s about a young boy who is trying to make sense of the world and trying to understand where it all fits.” That said, the characters everyone recognises will be there. The story being brought to stage by BAFTA winning writer Rosanna Lowe has gone back to the source material.

Mowgli is adopted by wolf Raksha and raised as her own. Taken under the protection of panther Bagheera and heavyweight bear Baloo, the Man-cub is taught the laws of the jungle, learning to evade the breathtaking squeeze of boa-constrictor Kaa and the lure of the money-loving dancing monkeys.

As years pass, the jungle grows uneasy with his presence and when Mowgli encounters his own kind he must discover what it is to be Man, and to face the bloodthirsty roar of tiger Shere Khan. “I think we’re saying it’s for children as young as seven or eight,” says Steel. “It does that thing that theatre is brilliant at – it explores some really big themes but in a safe environment where young people can look at those themes and it engages with them.” Born and raised in Grimsby, this is a homecoming of sorts for Steel.

He has assembled a seriously impressive cast of performers to tell the story within the epic set and space – and the word performers is right, there are huge demands being placed on the likes of Shobna Gulati and the others who make up the cast that will bring The Jungle Book to life.

“It’s not a physical theatre piece exactly, but there is a lot of physicality in it,” says Steel. “When you have people playing animals, the important thing is to get them to embody the animals.” To this end the cast parade around on ‘kangaroo stilts’, the kind people might have seen used by Paralympians.

Kangaroo stilts, an infinite jungle and one of the world’s best directors? It’s going to be epic.

Parables in the jungle

WHILE many remember the brilliant Disney musical version of The Jungle Book, the source material is not a single book, but a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling.

The first was published in 1894, in a magazine, and others followed.

While the stories follow Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves in the jungle, through his journey into adulthood, the stories take the form of parables and carry a number of messages Kipling wanted to share about society and the importance of community in raising the next generation.

The Jungle Book, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to January 18. Tickets £12-£30, family tickets £14-£27. 0113 2137700, www.wyp.org.uk