‘My work is more closely linked to animal behaviour than to any school of acting,’ said Robert Wilson in 2021. ‘When a bear looks at you, it listens with its eyes, its body. When a dog creeps up on a bird, it is not just listening with its ears, but with its entire body.’

Robert Wilson has been creating experimental theatre productions for over five decades. Born in Texas in 1941, he originally studied for a business degree before moving to New York in the early 1960s, where he switched to studying art and architecture and became immersed in the pioneering art, dance and theatre scene in the city. There he discovered the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and theatre companies such as La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, among many others. In 1968, Wilson formed his own company, Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, and in 1992 he founded The Watermill Center in upstate New York, described as an arts ‘laboratory’, which he continues to work from today.

From the 1960s onwards, Wilson has been a prolific director of theatre and dance performances, as well as creating sculpture, drawings, video artworks, and furniture design. His work crosses artistic boundaries and blurs our understanding of what different mediums can offer. He has created original works for the theatre but also offered his own interpretations of classic texts, including works by Shakespeare and operas by Wagner and Puccini, and now The Jungle Book.

The production is intended by Wilson to be an ‘ode to otherness’, celebrating how tolerance and understanding are vital to the world.

Eliza Williams

Co-produced by Factory International with Théâtre de la Ville in Paris and a host of international partners, Wilson’s Jungle Book has previously been performed in Paris, Florence, Antwerp, Bordeaux and Tunis, with this run at Aviva Studios marking its first performances in English.

Childhood is a recurring theme in Wilson’s work, with a number of his productions exploring life from the perspective of a child. One of his earliest iconic works, Deafman Glance, first performed in 1970, is an epic piece lasting several hours, which tells the tale of a young deaf child through a series of fantastical visual scenes. His adaptation of The Jungle Book is intended to be enjoyed by both children and adults, with him commenting on its opening in 2021 that ‘I personally believe that a great work stands on its own and can just as easily be appreciated by a child or an older person, by someone who had no formal schooling or someone who has done tertiary studies.’

As well as being intended for audiences of all ages, the production features a cast that is diverse in all aspects, bringing together different generations, as well as actors from different sectors of society. The cast were heavily involved in the development of the play, which took place in two parts: initially over several months of research at The Watermill Center, and then via a second round of rehearsals, which went on until the day before the premiere in Paris. The production is intended by Wilson to be an ‘ode to otherness’, celebrating how tolerance and understanding are vital to the world.

‘In all my early works, there were no professional performers,’ he said of the casting process. ‘Gradually I brought in trained artists, singers and dancers, but I was not trying to find virtuosos able to do a sauté in pointe shoes. I was interested in the personality of the people I was working with. I’ve always thought that anyone who felt at ease in their own skin could get up on stage and perform in one of my works. The casting of Jungle Book, working with the crew at the Théâtre de la Ville, focused on the diversity and the complementarity of the performers. It was like founding a new family.’

Wilson’s plays are renowned for featuring specific styles and recurring imagery, which he has honed over decades of practice. While his work often features elements drawn from the natural world – animals, in particular, have made repeated appearances in his productions – he does not attempt to portray them in a realistic way. Instead his actors are regularly shown in stark white makeup reminiscent of Japanese Noh theatre, and his performances incorporate elaborate lighting displays and projections to augment the storytelling.

The resulting style is deliberately artificial, and anti-naturalistic. In this, Wilson has been influenced by the ‘epic theatre’ of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht deliberately employed effects in his plays and productions that broke the ‘fourth wall’ of theatre so his audiences did not get lost in the emotions of a scene, but instead were able to reflect on the themes and ideas that are contained in the work.

‘I see all theatre as music and all theatre as dance’

Robert Wilson

As well as having an unrelenting work ethic, Wilson is renowned for his collaborative approach. Over his long career he has worked alongside many artists, musicians, and writers, from Susan Sontag to Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits to Lady Gaga.

For Jungle Book, he 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. 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 does not see Jungle Book as a musical, however, but rather that the music is a component of the whole experience. ‘I see all theatre as music and all theatre as dance,’ he said. ‘That’s what the word ‘opera’ means. It contains all the arts, covering everything: architecture, painting, music, poetry, dance, lighting and more. I find it hard to divide things up.’

Images: Lucie Jansch

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