Music & Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice
Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi
Direction, Costume Design & Mask/Puppetry Co-Design by Julie Taymor
Despite the juggernaut of success with which we are familiar, the cinematic and stage variations of Disney’s The Lion King were nothing if not tremendous gambles. And now, with records shattered, platinum soundtracks launched, and an extravagance of stage enchantment, there’s little else to add to the story which has inspired and conjured emotions for nearly thirty years. Returning to Edinburgh after the pandemic cut the run short, The Pride Lands rolls into the city again at the Playhouse. So, for the veterans of the pride, the production is as compelling as ever. And for the fresh-faced cubs of the Savannah – how we envy your ability to see it for the first time.
With the break of dawn and the hauntingly familiar and beautiful notes of Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki, a sensory ripple erupts in the now silent audience. There are significant moments in Theatrical history which define a show. And by the time Circle of Life has concluded, the magnificence of Elton John & Tim Rice’s original score has made its claim to this rightful place. Now with a more profound infusion of African tones, set to the hued orange dusk of the Savannah plains, is a playground for Julie Taymor’s puppetry which takes roots from cultural aspects of Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Born to be King, young cub Simba cannot wait to claim his crown – but has little to no understanding of the weight it carries. His blind ambition and naïve attitudes lead him headfirst into the dangers outside Kingdom, and even closer to home. Usually, under the gaze of Royal advisor Zazu, or father Mufasa, there is another with their eye on the young cub. Envious, irredeemable and callous, Scar, Simba’s uncle, finds opportunity in the young cub’s headstrong demeanour. And finds opportunity to lay claim to the pride, and eliminate both his brother and nephew.
The answer of how to adapt this for the stage, an animated film already taking loose elements of Shakespeare’s classics, lies in the book of Irene Mecchi and Roger Allers. Blended with additional lyrics and score, stirring the foundations of the film’s setting to enrich the communal and African inspirations together with Taymor’s phenomenal direction and design, the production is elevated into a parade of palette and puppetry – from the aesthetic to the lighting, evoking an in-depth sensory thrill.
Scorched with imagination, the evolution of Simba’s journey from innocence through depression and acceptance is intensified by Jean-Luc Guizonne’s powerful rendition of Mufasa. The realisation of his father’s words to return home, to the score of Under the Stars is a maudlin moment of tender beauty which showcases the orchestra, Donald Holder’s lighting and Stephenson Arden-Sodje’s role as Adult Simba’s progression out of the darkness and the vast shadow cast by Scar.
Mastery of a role is something performers can fear, the dreaded ‘type-cast’, but Richard Hurst has taken on the mantle of Scar for a while now and continues to receive equal acclaim (and sneer) from the audience as the finest of Theatrical villains. Bordering operatic, with momentary speak-sing notes, Hurst’s dedication to the annunciation of the Thespian rogue is paramount to the success and appreciation of the audience whenever Hurst takes to the stage. Embodying the physicality of Scar, choreography-heavy production is a testament to Hurst and choreographer Gareth Fagan demonstrates that though Scar may not partake in dance sequences, the skulking, scheming usurper of Pride Rock is always moving, thinking, and plotting.
And for all the vile villainy Scar may conjure, respect is paramount to the delicacy and openness director Julie Taymor pays with the trickier aspects of the story. The passing of characters is a known and often parodied, part of the story which is met head-on. Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy’s Sarabi and Nokwanda Khuzwayo’s Adult Nala evoke an intensity in their vocals and movement, the Lionesses striking the chords of a Grecian chorus, or mourners who await their call to return into warriors.
And though comedic relief elements like Timon & Pumbaa provide the levity to balance the show, the more tasteful and visual aspects of loss and grief play a tremendous role in the longevity of The Lion King, and the beguiling success of Taymor’s infusion of artistic elements through Bunraku puppetry to achieve what words sometimes cannot. But that’s not to ignore the laughter – indeed Alan McHale and Carl Sanderson’s dynamic duo are the perfect surrogate parents for Simba, loud, bold and bringing the much-desired aspects of the oasis blues and greens to the stage’s palette. But not to be outdone, Matthew Forbes maintains the audience’s affection and smiles as Zazu, the flittering fowl.
In 1994, Disney’s The Lion King was the reigning champion of the studio and the golden
child cub of their Renaissance. In 2022, Disney’s stage version continues to produce Theatre magic and retains its crowd as royalty of The Westend, Broadway and Touring performances. In the immortal words of Scar: “Be Prepared”. Be prepared for this pride’s golden age, a grandiose production which celebrates life and redemption, rejecting the wallowing doldrums of regret. From Shakespeare to the Savannah, The Lion King is an enchanting pinnacle of musical theatre, of artistic construction, and as the King returns to Edinburgh, there’s an understandable desire to recapture childhoods and introduce new fans to The Circle of Life.
The Lion King runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until July 2nd.
Tickets for which may be obtained here.