As Disney’s The Lion King prepares to take the stage at the Bristol Hippodrome on 18 May for a six-week run, we delve into director Julie Taymor’s kaleidoscopic production to see what’s in store…
The Lyceum Theatre has been home to Disney’s multi award-winning musical The Lion King for 24 years. Visionary director Julie Taymor’s rich reimagining of the beloved film has redefined people’s expectations of theatre and the screen-to-stage franchise has become the highest-grossing show in history, attracting more than 110 million people to theatres worldwide.
Now, after two previous sold-out runs, the production is returning to the Bristol Hippodrome on 18 May and running until 1 July, allowing fans to experience the spectacle closer to home.
Since it first hit the London stage in 1999, The Lion King has been famous for its visibly manipulated puppets, glorious colours, and enchanting music. As we took our seats at the Lyceum Theatre this month – as over 15 million people have done before us – it was clear within moments of the curtain parting that, after two decades, the show has retained its visual majesty.
With 50 actors and more than 232 puppets not only taking up speaking roles but bringing the scene to life as a living, breathing landscape, the audience was catapulted from its surroundings and transported to the savanna desert until the closing curtain…
As evocative beats of the Serengeti hushed the chatter like a charm, the theatre teemed with African life. Huge numbers of animals ambled forward through the stalls and from the wings, coming together in perfect choral harmony for a jaw-dropping rendition of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Circle of Life at the foot of Pride Rock – an engineering masterpiece in itself. Wherever you were sitting, there was something to admire. The giraffes teetered on four stilts and the gazelles – with each performer holding one puppet in each hand and balancing one on their head – bound in from the auditorium, the sight was just as magical for the adults as it was for the children.
From thereon, Garth Fagan’s choreography and Taymor’s design took us on a spellbinding journey as we watched Simba the lion cub grapple with his father’s death, seize back his crown from his vicious uncle and step into his destined role as King of the Pridelands.
As Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s storyline unfolded and we were introduced to the characters, the sheer talent of the cast members was instantly evident, each with a singing voice that could shake the Lyceum’s foundations. With 50 actors and more than 232 puppets not only taking up speaking roles but bringing the scene to life as a living, breathing landscape, the audience was catapulted from its surroundings and transported to the savanna desert until the closing curtain.
The ingenuity of the costume, set design, sound, lighting and puppetry was impressive throughout but truly remarkable during some of the most moving scenes. Take the stampede, for instance. The thundering herd of wildebeest charging towards young Simba was created with such skill. The large, fast-moving rollers of wildebeest coupled with the burnt orange hues, instrumental sound effects and seamless choreography conjured just as much emotion as the animation.
Perhaps what was most striking about Taymor’s acclaimed translation of the film, however, was the ‘double event’ approach, allowing the audience to see both the animal traits of the puppets as well as the human emotions of the puppeteers. Zazu is a wonderful example of the ‘double event’. While the puppet is operated using two hands – the beak moving for the dialogue and the eyelids blinking in time – Zazu has an essence of the bird he is as well as a beautiful sense of humanity.
It took the team 37,000 hours to build the original puppets and masks and there is certainly beauty in the stage craft, watching the actors make it happen. You often get lost admiring the inner workings of the cheetah or the size of the elephant standing at 3.5 metres tall, while toe-tapping to the irresistible soundtrack.
The level of detail that has been considered is, at times, hard to take in. From the beaded corsets inspired by the clothing of Maasai warriors to the lionesses’ headpieces replicating the urns carried on the heads of women in African tribes, to the rich tapestry of songs and compositions from film composers Hans Zimmer and Mark Mancina, record producer Jay Rifkin, South African composer Lebo M and lyricist Tim Rice, everything is intricately layered.
Ultimately, this production is staggering in its ambition and wholly successful in its execution. Injected with joyous comedy moments while dealing with dark matters of death, grief and betrayal, the show, like the film, is bursting with warmth, humour and heart. With a combination of quick wit for the adults and unique eccentricity for young imaginations, The Lion King, we’re sure, is set to stand the test of time.
The Lion King will be showing at the Bristol Hippodrome from 18 May – 1 July. Book your tickets at: atgtickets.com
Featured image: “Huge numbers of animals ambled forward through the stalls and from the wings, coming together in perfect choral harmony for a jaw-dropping rendition of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Circle of Life at the foot of Pride Rock…”