In my misspent youth I spent a lot of years in the Theatre Department at the University of British Columbia. We had the best-equipped scene shop in the city, fully qualified carpenters and technicians, some of the most creative designers around, and plenty of money to spend. And mostly student actors. Our performances used to get reviews of the “This is a play about a stage set,” variety. The mere humans couldn’t compete.
I felt somewhat this way watching the Lion King at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre the other night. This show is renown for the creativity of its design, and I thought that the visuals were fantastic. The script and the performers couldn’t quite match up.
First, of course, we must talk puppetry. That was the reason I was looking forward to the show, and I was suitably impressed. The creative ways in which the various animals were presented, along with the movement of the puppeteers, was truly a wonder to behold.
But right along with that came the rest of the visual effects. It’s a standard wing-and-drop set, but what drops! Asymmetrical, multi-layered, often mimicking torn-paper art, and lit creatively. The moving set pieces glided smoothly around the stage, with never a stagehand in sight. Designers drew upon conventions of many different schools of design to create a never-ending parade of wonderful effects.
However, you can overdo this technique, because not all styles are created equal. For example, the most-used set piece was the Pride Rock, an independently moving wagon made of smooth-sided rectangular interlocking step units that rose to a viewpoint like the prow of a ship. It flowed smoothly around the stage, without a hitch or a tremor, like a lizard trailing its flexible tail, then curling into stillness. Nothing really rock-like about it, though. Too smooth and metallic in texture.
The truly remarkable visual was the Elephant Graveyard, far and away the most impressive set piece I have ever seen in 40 years of theatre work. It was a three dimensional staircase of huge elephant bones, realistically represented, shaded, and dramatically lit.
However, when we left this representational set and returned to the Pride Rock, it looked flat and lifeless in contrast. Likewise, Tim Rice’s rather facile thematic content doesn’t really stand up to the dramatic power of Hamlet, upon which the musical is loosely based.
The same stylistic problem occurred with the music. The African-style singing and drumming was immensely powerful, filling the theatre with emotion and sound. This left some of the pop music, ably performed though it was, sounding rather pale by comparison.
I also felt that the costume designer needs a short lesson in the “less is more” school of design. Many of the costumes were an olio of so many varieties of fabrics and styles that it was like seeing paisley at a distance: you didn’t really get any overall impression, just a blur. At times the multiple colours and styles of the fabrics combined in a glorious swirl like the costumes at an African market. In other situations, there was such a mishmash on stage you didn’t know where to look. This, combined with the strangely asexual nature of the costumes and the wonderful puppetry to attract the viewer’s eye, put the actors at an even greater disadvantage.
In contrast, the Drying of the Waterhole effect, which was accomplished by a large circle of blue fabric being drawn slowly into a hole in the stage floor, was incredibly simple and powerful.
The result of this overkill was that the cast was rather overwhelmed by the spectacle. Only two performers were up to the challenge. Tshidi Manye, playing Rafiki the Mandrel (witch doctor/tribal elder/mistress of ceremonies) had the emotional power to overcome this obstacle. Her personality and her singing voice were the equal of it all. She spent the first half of the show singing in native dialect without one word of English, but the audience knew exactly what she was saying and responded appropriately. Scar, played by Patrick R. Brown, went the other way and undercut the power of the rest of the piece with refreshing cynicism and low-key humour.
Oh, yes, and Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, who transcended their puppetry and double-handedly carried the comedy of the second act. Zasu the Hornbill was simply too small a puppet to fill the needs of a 2500-seat theatre, so the first act lacked enough humour to balance the weight of the rest of the piece.
Greatest disappointment: the death scene of Mufasa (Simba’s beloved father), magnificently presented in a Wildebeest stampede, falls emotionally flat. I know it’s hard to expect an 11-year-old actor to bring the audience to tears with his grief, but that’s what the writers expected. It didn’t happen.
So, if I go back into the images that remain strongest in my mind, the Lion King is the story of a bunch of wonderful animal puppets in an elephantine pile of bones. Oh, yes, and there were a few lions in there somewhere.