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THE LION KING: PRIDE ROCK ON BROADWAY (article first published : 2008-02-15)

In a radio interview, the inspirational British opera director, Laurence Dale spoke of giving the audience work to do and not spoon-feeding them an easy to digest meal. He assumes intelligence, innate creativity and the wish to participate.

In choosing theatre as her medium, The Lion King creator, Julie Taymor, echoes Dale’s thoughts. The “I”s are not to be dotted, nor the “T”s crossed: “Showing the mechanics, revealing the rods, ropes and wires that make it all happen, is something that the theatre can do that film and television cannot. They are literal mediums where the spectator is asked to believe in the reality of the image, while theatre functions best as a poetic medium. The audience, given a hint of suggestion of an idea, is ready to fill in the lines, to take it the rest of the way. They are participants in the entire event.”

I’ve not yet seen The Lion King but this book - which goes behind the scenes into its creation - makes me want to. Not for her, the animal costumes of pantomime but something altogether more challenging: constructions which suggest the animal whilst not disguising the human who wears them. More like armour and less like a disguise.

This not only invites us to see how it all works, but allows for the suggestion of the animal in us and the reverse. The word she constantly uses is “evoke.” Her clarity of focus is evident in all the design choices she makes, from the earlier more illustrative and literal solutions to the final wittily poetic conclusions. Nowhere is this more so than in the fabrics which make the billowing, kitelike, vaguely oblong, garments for the actors. A lesser mind would have settled for printed animal material, fake fur and the rest. She however, plunders the unique patterns of African cloth with their distinctive geometry, and creates variations in earth colours which immediately evoke the locale and the animal.

Even those who are not expert in African design, instinctively absorb the idiom – this is not South America or China or the South Sea Islands, this is Africa. Headpieces like oversize helmets, cloaks and metallic corsets which suggest beadwork, and Africanesque wrist bangles and anklets disguise the bodies of the actors, but nowhere do we see the pantomime animal paw and claw, but human feet and hands and, of course, that most expressive of all - the head.

And she does not stop with animals for the environment, too, must be evoked, hence the chorus of men balancing enormous upsidedown brushes as headpieces that suggest a grassland plane. Hence the great spoked circles that suggest palms and the many tiered headpieces which evoke flocks of birds.

The classic textwork on this continent’s ritualized art, African Art In Motion, confirms how much Julie Taymor has absorbed the African spirit allowing her work to be completely original and never pastiche. A great achievement.

The Lion King : Pride Rock On Broadway by Julie Taymor with Alexis Gree is published by Hyperion New York. - Andrew Verster




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