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The Concrete Jungle Book

Matt Whitfield on a train to london. He is smiling at the camera with a black and white checked shirt and a black bandana.
Matt Whitfield on train to London

Away I go on the train! I had planned this all out in advance, my accommodation, my travel, my luggage ready for my trip to London. Not all of that went according to plan but we'll look at that another time. Right now, I want to talk about approaching the character I was ready to bring to life.

I was off to play Akela in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. It is a fantastic part and I felt so natural when reading through the script. You ever read a character and instantly feel a bond with them? Of course you have, I'm an idiot for even asking but that's exactly what I felt when I read Akela. For those who don't know, Akela is the leader of the wolf pack and head of the council of the Free People. On delving into him I found him to be noble and wise, as well as the toughest wolf but there was more to him than that. My Director Jack Tutt asked me to think of three words to describe Akela. I thought about this hard and picked "vulnerable", "caring" and "brave". An odd choice in the main you may think, I know I did, but I'd read through his lines looking for the clues as all of us actors do and those traits were unmistakably there.

He is vulnerable to the Laws of the Jungle. He knows he is not above the very laws he presides over and passes judgements on. He knows them all and believes in them deeply, realising that they are necessary for the society he is a part of to survive. He is also acutely aware that he will not lead forever and when the day comes when he misses his kill then he himself is open to be killed for the leadership.

Caring is perhaps the oddest for this aloof character, but he does care deeply. For his wolf pack and his role as council leader, as well as for his friends. He may seem cold and tough but I felt how much he cares deeply when reading through with the rest of the cast. I could feel the paternal concern with Mowgli, the worry for Mowgli's parents and his concern for both Bagheera and Baloo when they go out looking for the erstwhile man cub.

Brave is likely the most obvious choice, but it cannot be discarded. He stands up to Shere Khan at every opportunity and even in the face of danger he knows he must show how unflappable he is. He also faces his fate with absolute stoicism and acceptance, which ties back to the vulnerable trait, but more so how he deals with it.

The exercise to give your characters three traits is an invaluable tool in your actor's toolkit and one that really helps bring my characters to life. There is one line in the play that I felt was just a throwaway line to just remind the audience I was still there, but when I applied this exercise to this line, this was a line that brought all three to my mind. The line is directed at Shere Khan at the watering hole where I growl "You bring shame on Jungle Law". As I said, I originally didn't think too much about the line but when I did I am showing the bravery that I, a wolf, am standing up to a much bigger creature in a bloody big tiger, I care because I am protecting not just the Free People and my wolves but if I show weakness then Shere Khan could run riot and bring down our society and I am vulnerable because of both those aspects; big scary tiger and the weight of upholding the laws of our society all rest of my shoulders and if I should fall...

I was going to detail my entire trip in one post but after just typing this small aspect of approaching the role that might be a little too much. I hope this has been an interesting read and I'll be back soon to detail another aspect of my trip. Stay tuned and happy acting!

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