Book: Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Music: Elton John
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Julie Taymor
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
When Disney’s film The Lion King was released in 1994, it was the first full length animated film they had produced that was a totally original story, although it doffs its cap to the biblical stories of Moses and Joseph and that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Within the Disney organisation, it was not seen as an especially prestigious project and there were stumbles along the way before it was released to critical and public acclaim. It’s a huge film in every sense, including the scope of its setting in Africa’s savannah, so when Disney decided to make a stage version in 1997, it must have seemed a daunting task. Nevertheless, choreographer Garth Fagan worked with the designers to produce a visually stunning production using puppetry and dance rooted in African tradition. The Broadway production opened in 1997 and subsequently across the world, winning multiple awards.
This is indeed a feast for the eyes. The opening sequence, in which the tiny cub Simba is presented to the animals so that they may pay homage is quite breathtaking. Early on in the production’s development, it was decided not to use actors in skins but rather to use masks and puppets to suggest the lithe motion of the animals of the savannah. This decision proves to be inspired over and over. The visual landscape is awesome in the true meaning of the word, inspiring awe in the audience when we see the stage chock full of dancers appearing on stilts as giraffes or wearing mechanical gadgets to portray the essence of a cheetah, for example. If there is a criticism, it is that there is so much going on that it can be difficult to take it all in and fully appreciate the skills of the whole cast. The sheer scale of the savannah is evoked through the use of many techniques, so, for example, small puppets or shadow puppets are seen gambolling among the grasslands in the distance before the main characters appear to act out their scenes.
The plotline is relatively simple: the savannah is ruled benevolently by Mufasa. Mufasa has a jealous brother, Scar, who plots to be king in Mufasa’s place and whose nose is put out of joint when the new heir apparent, Simba, is born. Scar makes an alliance with the hyenas to lure Mufasa into danger during the annual stampede of the wildebeest. He eventually kills Mufasa and convinces the young Simba that he is to blame and that he must leave and never return. Simba meets Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa, the warthog and the three form a happy-go-lucky, carefree alliance. Back at Pride Rock, Scar is now king, supported by the hated hyenas, but his rule is troubled and the animals are suffering. Later, the older Simba cannot settle and after a chance meeting with childhood friend, Nala, and a vision of his father among the stars (an exquisite piece of theatre in itself) he returns to challenge Scar in an attempt to retrieve his place as The Lion King.
This is truly an ensemble piece. It would not work without the concentration and single-mindedness of the entire cast. Their movements remain in character as the animals they portray throughout, acting and reacting; the lions’ movements are consistently feline, with the lionesses especially, moving with great grace, for example, in the sweeping and complex scene in which they are seen hunting with the young Nala. Even so, there are stand out performances from Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki, the monkey and “wise woman”, Stephen Carlile as the smoothly evil Scar and John Hasler and Mark Roper as light relief Timon and Pumbaa, and, of course, Cleveland Cathnott as the inspirational Mufasa.
This is a production of great scope and imagination, and is supremely well done. The pace never slows as the mood changes from celebration to despair and ultimately back to celebration, supported by the sublime music, including Circle Of Life, They Live In You, and Can You Feel The Love. It is well worth making the effort to join Simba on his journey from impetuous cub to … The Lion King.
Runs until 28 September
Picture: Deer van Meer