Robert Wilson brings his distinctive set designs to the Jungle Book

Wilson directs the production at Aviva Studios in collaboration with musicians CocoRosie, bringing a focus on tolerance and friendship to the childhood classic

Those who have Disney’s classic movie version of the Jungle Book fixed in their minds will be in for a surprise when Robert Wilson’s take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel arrives at Aviva Studios in Manchester next week after appearances in various cities across Europe.

Wilson, now in his 80s, is renowned for his striking set designs which were first developed in the experimental New York dance and theatre scene in the 60s and take influence from the stark styles of Japanese Noh theatre as well as featuring elaborate lighting displays and projections.

“[I appreciate] … Hollywood portraits of the early 30s and those from Germany in the 20s where light performed as an actor, where every movement, every second was lit and sculptured, allowing us to hear and see more readily and intensely,” said Wilson in an interview in Dance Ink magazine in the 90s. “Light in my work functions as a part of an architectural whole. It is an element that helps us hear and see, which is the primary way we communicate. Without light there is no space.”

Jungle Book Robert Wilson
All images: From the 2019 performance of Robert Wilson’s Jungle Book at Théâtre de la Ville, Paris. Photos © Lucie Jansch
Robert Wilson Jungle Book

Wilson’s theatrical worlds are deliberately anti-naturalistic, instead drawing from the ‘epic theatre’ of Bertolt Brecht to create productions that feel intentionally artificial, in order for the audience to understand the ideas contained in the story and not get too caught up in emotion. In this version of the Jungle Book, these themes include a focus on tolerance, friendship and humanity, and the celebration of childhood.

Following a long history of collaborating with musicians, including Lady Gaga, Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson, for the Jungle Book Wilson is reunited with CocoRosie, the musical duo consisting of sisters Sierra and Bianca Casady, with whom he has collaborated on several previous productions, including an adaptation of Peter Pan.

Robert Wilson Jungle Book
Robert Wilson Jungle Book

While many audiences will have discovered the tale of Mowgli, Baloo, Shere Khan et al via the original 1967 Disney film and its famous songs, the live performance of music by CocoRosie gives this production a very different feel, incorporating troubadour rap as well as music from the violin, harp, guitar and piano.

Wilson’s version of the Jungle Book is certainly more avant-garde than the typical adaptation, but he stresses it is intended to be enjoyed by both children and adults. “The Jungle Book is a work for all ages,” he says. “I always liked what Baudelaire said: ‘Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will’.”

Robert Wilson and CocoRosie: Jungle Book is on show at Aviva Studios in Manchester from March 27-31;