Nautanki Theatre’s ”˜The Jungle Book’ deserves a big round of applause

By Aradhana Bhatt

When one goes to watch a Nautanki production one expects the unexpected. Just like their previous play, ”˜Last Dance at Dum Dum’, their latest production, ”˜The Jungle Book’, recently staged at Parramatta Riverside Theatre, was no exception to the rule.

Since its inception in 2008, Nautanki theatre has gained a reputation amongst theatre-goers as an independent theatre movement with its artistic productions challenging mainstream theatre. Thus, it was no surprise that it ran three house full shows at the Lennox Theatre from 3rd to the 5th of August. Rudyard Kipling’s classic ”˜The Jungle Book’, a work that has held generations of readers spell-bound, has been reproduced into many cinematic and theatrical versions. Nautanki’s production is an adaptation written by Craig Higginson, a talented South African playwright. Joyraj Bhattacharji, visiting creative, a versatile actor-director from Kolkata brought to life the story of the ”˜Law of the Jungle’, a timeless story that has many figurative and symbolic connotations. This is Joyraj’s third directorial collaboration with Nautanki.

Due to Kipling’s Indian connection, the play has a strong Indian flavour which comes across in many ways, one of them being names of characters like Baloo, Mowgli, Bandar Log, Shere Khan. Nautanki’s ”˜The Jungle Book’ is a great cross-cultural production with a cast made up of talented actors from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, a cast that depicts the very essence of the play – the punchline, with which it ends, ”˜Who is your family? Those who look the same as you or those who love you?’ Kipling’s familiar characters retain their names, although they have gained human form in Higginson’s adaptation. Labelled a ”˜dark comedy’, the play has many parallels to universal socio-political scene and, like, Orwell’s ”˜Animal Farm’ is sure to hold a place among intelligentsia around the world.

An added dimension of the production is the shadow puppetry by the Sydney Puppet Theatre. Sue Wallace, its co-founder and well-known puppeteer is also the co-director of ”˜The Jungle Book’. The play is rich in music and dance-like movement. Avijit Sarkar’s music enhances the play and adds a valuable dimension to it.

A short play by Indian standards, ”˜The Jungle Book’ opens and closes with the same sets – a net for the four monkey characters – Bandar Log covers most of the front of the stage and an aluminium stand, for the rest of the characters to play out their parts, occupies most of the stage. The dimly lit stage gave authenticity to the jungle setting, although, slightly better lighting, using follow lights, could have given the audience an easier optical experience. However, this minimalist approach to props, costumes, make-up and lights is probably a growing trend in modern theatre. It allows actors the space and freedom to display their prowess while allowing the audience some space for imagination and interpretation.

Khan Trieu as Mowgli or the Man Cub is sure to steal hearts with his superb movements and acting. Neel Banerjee, Warren Thompson, Daniel Aguiar, Sanjeev Raja, Jesse Secomb, Claire Mason et al did a fine job with their respective roles in the play. The entire cast has theatrical background, many of them with a formidable acting portfolio. Having said that, the fact remains that most of them have other day jobs and pursue theatre as a passion. This in itself poses major challenges for any artist, a challenge that the cast of ”˜The Jungle Book’ succeeded in overcoming.

Overall, The Jungle Book’ is a successful production for which Nautanki deserves a big round of applause. The producers ought to be congratulated for venturing to stage a play of this nature, especially because we, the audience, have confined ourselves to a very narrow definition of ”˜entertainment’ when it comes to theatre. We look forward to the future with hope and expectation  for Nautanki to grow from strength to strength and for it to bring more of such artistic creations.


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