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Poppy Burton-Morgan

INTERVIEW: Poppy Burton-Morgan on the bare necessities of creating a modern Jungle Book

We’re all used to Rudyard Kipling’s tale of the “man-cub” lost and alone in the jungles of India, either in Walt Disney’s famed animated 1967 feature film or by Kipling’s original series of stories. However, the Artistic Director of Metta Theatre, Poppy Burton-Morgan, has transplanted her Mowgli from the jungles of India to the urban jungle of a London inner city. She took time out of rehearsals to talk to Paul Couch.

 

So Poppy Metta Theatre does Jungle Book but this isn’t quite as Kipling wrote it or even as Disney re-imagined it, is it?

Well, it’s interesting I mean actually, we’re being very faithful to the core story. But it is transposed to a contemporary urban world where all of the animals become kind of contemporary urban types or tropes of people. But the thing that was really interesting is there are passages of rap and spoken word text in our version; there are huge sections of the Kipling’s story in our version. There is actually quite a lot of Kipling text that was embedded into our scripts and into those shows. But I think for most people their reference point is to Disney so it’s a huge departure but the truth is Disney itself is a huge departure from the Kipling stories.

So how are rehearsals going?

I’d been doing a reasonable amount of pre-rehearsal rehearsal with a few of the cast because the casts are predominantly dancers so the passages for the spoken text and the rap, they’re slightly less confident with, so just this morning I was working with the performer playing Baloo practicing his beat-boxing interlude and his spoken words narration.

Kipling’s colonialist work and an inner city setting seem to be incongruous. As an adaptor how do you go about bringing those two different worlds together?

On paper it sounds like it’s quite a leap but actually the original Kipling was already a kind of social commentary on Indian culture at the time, so all of those animal tropes were already kind of loosely based on distinct groups and castes within the society. So to update that and make it contemporary and relevant to us was actually much easier than you might think. We’ve been developing it for about three years now, so some of those kinds of ideas – like Baloo who is a street sweeper – that came just quite early but then some of the other characters, well their particular kind of role or place in street culture has sort of evolved at the different development periods entirely.

Will the purists hate it?

I’d like to think not. I think the Kipling purists will actually be pleasantly surprised because it’s much more faithful than the Disney. Someone emailed the other day and asked: will it be the Disney soundtrack? Well by no means is it anything to do with the Disney-related show. And what is interesting is there are two more films of Jungle Book coming out this year. Disney is releasing their own and then Andy Serkis is doing one. I think both of those kind of explore the darker side of the story; there is a lot of darkness in Kipling and almost none in the 1967 Disney version, so I think, people coming expecting something incredibly kind of light-hearted and feel good there are some happy moments and, ultimately, it’s a positive ending but we go into quite dark places in the use of transposing it into a kind of contemporary society. That does make some quite political statement about identity and belonging and racial identity multicultural Britain. So it’s quite bold.

You’re taking on tour after, is it to around 10 venues?

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

Times are still quite tough for the arts economically, are receiving houses still playing it safe when it comes to programming?

Well, it’s really interesting. I think like a lot of the regional venues have definitely booked it because it’s that title, and there’s a core audience for a core audience of a known title. And I think what’s really exciting is they know full well that they’re not getting the Disney and they’re getting street dance and they’re getting circus and they’re getting something kind of more disengaged or complex or kind of richly layered. And hopefully, what will balance the fine line between engaging those core audiences and not provoking too much ‘oh but this isn’t Disney!’ but at the same time, this is developing these new audiences. At Oxford Playhouse, for example, they have a huge core audience that is very white and very middle class and yet there’s a very significant black minority ethnic demographic in Oxford, which you wouldn’t know if you just sat in the centre of Oxford because they’re on the outskirts – out on the edge. They’re really excited about the show as a bridge between those two communities.

I think for a lot of the venues it’s that dream thing, which is both an opportunity to develop audiences and engage audiences that are not currently very engaged, but at the same time, it’s still an offering to that core family demographic.

You only left to Oxford University in 2006 but you seemed to have crammed in an extraordinary amount of work in the meantime, including time to have a family. Where does all that energy come from?

People ask me this all the time. I think I’ve just always been one of those people who’ve always had a lot of energy. I also have two children so I crammed by as well. And, well, some people will read a book and have one book at a time. I’m this kind of person who wants to be reading like five or six different books at the same time.

So it’s all about multitasking?

Yeah.

You’re Artistic Director at Metta and you created the company with your husband in 2005. We announced a few weeks ago that Esther Richardson was to take over from Marcus Romer at Pilot, and there are many very prominent arts organisations now headed by women. Do you think that glass ceiling has now being broken or is there still more work to do?

I think there is still more to do. I mean it’s really difficult. I think for my generation, it’s slightly different in that there is a sort of parity at the level of female directors. But I’m getting to an age now and I chose to keep working as prolifically when I had children but, for a lot of them that’s not possible or that’s not preferable. And so that point at which women start having children in their 30s, there’s always that “trailing off” of the career and theatre is not particularly supportive of or sensitive to that; if you go away then they will forget you.

So I think there is still and I think to that the point where directors might transition to becoming the artistic director of the building, I think it’s still actually a problem and that’s where a lot of women take themselves out of the running. So I definitely think it’s changing and is changing for the better, but it certainly doesn’t feel like there’s kind of equality across the industry in terms of gender parity.

What next from Metta Theatre after Jungle Book?

As I’ve said, we’ve got this new adaptation of Three Sisters under commission, which is exciting because we’ve never tackler Chekov before. Also, next year we’re doing another co-production with Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, which should be a new version of Madame Butterfly and we’ve commissioned a new play about internet security and internet addiction. So a very diverse mix.

When you approach things like Three Sisters and Madame Butterfly will you be going the same route as Jungle Book and doing something completely different to what would normally be expected?

I think what always underpins our company is the use of multiple art forms to try and tell a story. And I mean not just for the sake of it so, for example, in Madame Butterfly it will be the opera sung by opera singers but there will be a single circus artist who plays Madame Butterfly’s soul or spirit or shadow. The Three Sisters, that would probably be a slightly straighter; it’s new adaptation and we’re transposing it to Nigeria. So that, in itself, is already quite a leap. It really varies from project to project as to kind of how cross art form it is. But I guess across all of them because we run a company as a director and designer there is a shared visual aesthetic across the work but also in everything we do, there’s a sort of politically or socially engaged thing underpinning it and it’s not always the same message. Particularly in the family work, you see a lot of work that is quite simple but also simplistic. And I think people actually underestimate the complexity of young audiences and what they can take on. You make the choices you make about perpetuating a status quo around gender or race or disability, any of those things. I think we have more of a responsibility when you’re making work for family audiences to do something that’s a bit challenging in front of the kids because things really lodge in a young audience’s mind.

Jungle Book runs from 26 – 30 April at the Northcott Theatre Exeter, then touring until 28 August 2016 | Image: Contributed

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