By Jeremy Miles
When the award-winning Birmingham Stage Company decided to adapt Rudyard Kipling’s classic story The Jungle Book for the live stage they faced a dilemma.
How do you deliver the story of Mowgli, the young boy raised in the jungle, to a family theatre audience already familiar with characters like Shere Khan the tiger, Kaa the python and Baloo the bear through Disney’s slickly animated film?
The answer was to call in animal movement expert, Peter Elliot, to coach the actors and give the production a sense of reality.
Elliott, whose films have included Greystoke, Gorillas in the Mist and Congo, has worked on some 60 productions as actor, consultant and movement coach in the past 30 years.
A world authority on monkeys, he is regarded as Hollywood’s top primate man, yet he fell into the speciality by accident.
At Poole’s Lighthouse, where Jungle Book opens for a five-day run today, the 52-year-old told me about the extraordinary career that started when, fresh out of drama school, he auditioned to play a monkey in Greystoke.
At East 15 theatre school he had studied from Shakespeare to Pinter but was no expert on animals. However, the production team flew him to Los Angeles and made him a job offer. “They asked me to be head of R&D.” recalls Elliott. “Of course I said ‘yes’ but I hadn’t a clue what they meant. I had to phone round to find out!”
Discovering he was now in charge of research and development on a major Hollywood movie, the young Elliott set about finding out how to do it.
“It was amazing, I was only 21 and there I was with my own office at Burbank, a massive budget and the job of advising on all ape stuff in Greystoke. I had a great time!”
Some of his early experiences though quickly showed that he had a lot to learn. “You feel invincible at that age but there were some hairy moments . For a start, we tried to mix real fully grown chimps with actors in costumes. I didn’t realise at the time but a fully grown chimp is probably one of the most dangerous animals in the world to work with.”
This chilling fact became highly apparent when a simian co-star sunk his teeth into one of the metal arm extensions attached to Elliott’s costume, tearing it off just inches below his hand.
“I thought ‘Hang on, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.’ I realise now of course that what we were doing was complete lunacy”.
These days Elliott has years of expert study in primate behaviour behind him but still looks back on a career in which he’s been mauled by chimps three times, charged by an elephant, attacked by a panther and once even chased by a black-maned lion.
“Yes, its had its moments,” he says, “but it’s been really interesting.”
Things have moved on a long way from Greystoke. These days there are costumes with animatronics and radio-controlled facial features. But, despite advances in technology, Elliott insists the basics of animal movement in film and on stage are still very much the same as they were three decades ago.
He says he tries to teach actors to “feel like, breath like and be like” the animal they are portraying but the end result is about communication, not impersonation.
With the Jungle Book for instance he says: “It would have been no good having someone walking around on all fours and making animal noises. It would scare the kids to death and also it wouldn’t lend itself to the actor suddenly bursting into song and dance!
“So instead I start off giving workshops with realistic animal studies and then we just keep stripping things away until you end up with just the essence of the animal that’s being portrayed. It’s almost to see how little you need rather than how much you need. If you try and do too much you’re just putting obstacles in the way of the actors.”
l The Birmingham Stage Company’s production of The Jungle Book opens this evening at the Lighthouse in Poole with a variety of morning, afternoon and evening performances until Saturday.