The Lion King – Edinburgh Playhouse

Music & Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice

Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi

Direction, Costume Design & Mask/Puppetry Co-Design by Julia Taymor

1994, The Lion King, was by and large a tremendous gamble for The Walt Disney Company. It would go on to break records, particularly for animation, launch platinum soundtracks and define generations emotional state. An extravagance of stage enchantment there’s little to say which hasn’t been said before. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Pride Lands, the production is as compelling as ever, and if you’re a fresh cub to the Savannah sun – how we envy your ability to see this for the first time.

With the break of dawn, and those familiar notes courtesy of Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki, a sensory ripple of tingled necks erupts throughout The Edinburgh Playhouse. By the climax of The Circle of Life, Walt Disney’s The Lion King has made its mark, a literal stamp on musical theatre. The brilliance of Elton John & Tim Rice’s original score, with a deeper infusion of African tones and vocals, set against the hued orange dusk of the Savannah plains, is the playground of puppets who take inspiration from every cultural aspect of African, European and Asian design.

Born to be king, Simba is a young cub who can’t wait to claim his crown. His folly though lies in this blind-sighted ambition, naïve to the dangers of the Kingdom and those closer to home, Simba is usually under the gaze of Royal advisor Zazu, or his father Mufasa, king of the Pridelands. Envious, irredeemable and callous, Scar, Simba’s uncle, finds the opportunity to seize control of the pride and eliminate both his brother and his nephew.

How does one emulate a timeless narrative which captured to hearts of generations, crafting a stage version of something which is already a loose adaptation of a Shakespearean classic? The answer is that Allers and Mecchi’s book blends the sources closer together, while Julie Taymor’s phenomenal direction and design elevate the production into a unique visage, The Lion King maintains the 1994 films plot, characters and structure, with only a few additions. Its framework is less animated, for obvious reasons, but in place of this, it achieves a sense of realness, even with the vibrant hues of physical prop design, masks and puppetry. 

From the aesthetic to the audio and lighting, The Lion King is an extravagant parade of sensory thrill. Donald Holder’s lighting, casts a spectrum of emotion and tone, complimenting the piece flawlessly, ranging from the bold colours of I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, to the softer mutes of Soni’s interludes as Rafiki’s marvellous presence captivates us all. Award-winning, identifiable and reflecting both the life on the African plains, and the death which tragically can follow, Taymor & Michael Curry’s puppet design, from the mousiest to the tallest is nothing shy of perfection, with a variety of designs, including Japanese Bunraku puppets.

Scorching the imagination, The Lion King’s stirring search into the difficulties of loss, on such scale is as inspirational as ever. The entirety of Simba’s evolution, from innocence into, essentially, depression and his journey to acceptance and eventual forgiveness, not only from his pride but his own, is told entirely through the score, intensified by visual effects and Jean-Luc Guizonne’s powerful rendition of Mufasa. The realisation of his father’s words to return home, spoken from a stage enveloping mask, to the score of Under The Stars is a maudlin moment of tender beauty which showcases Jonathan Gill’s conduction of the orchestra, and Dashaun Young’s role as Adult Simba’s progression out of the darkness and the vast shadow cast by Scar.

A resident supporter of the bad boys, even we must accept the revulsion one expects with Scar, notorious as one of the few successful villains who “removes” his obstacles in pursuit of the crown. Silver-tongued yet so roguishly charismatic, Richard Hurst emulates the original depiction of the character but morphs into the physicality of Taymor’s costume design. Older, less agile, Taymor’s Scar is a planner, a tactician, but the sculpt of his headpiece, as remarkable as it may be, succeeds only with Hurst’s facial expression. Tip-toeing the line, Hurst’s performance leans on exaggeration, requiring to do so to remain sinister, without distancing the audience.

In a choice manoeuvre, though no less pleasant, his original stand-out number from the film, Be Prepared, is turned from a fast-paced, volatile number into a spoken song. Hurst’s position as a graduate of The Royal Academy comes, naturally, with control of his vocals, which is evident in his following number The Madness of King Scar, elevates Scar into a Shakespearean foe, reminiscent of Jeremy Irons iconic performance. Quintessentially Machiavellian, Hurst’s performance, heralding the dawning of a new age, is only successful with his denizens of the Elephant Graveyard.

Looking to Chow Down on what they can, Shenzi, Banzai & Ed, the slack-jawed, cackling trio of Hyena’s return but with an added musical number for their stage outing, performed by Rebecca Omogbehin, Simon Trinder & Alan McHale. As intimidating as the characters may be, helped with the hunched, looming presence they pervade, they serve as an example of The Lion King’s key strength is its side characters and humour. The Hyena’s, Timon & Pumba and most certainly Zazu quite often rob a few scenes away from our leads.

Matthew Forbes, frequently breaking the fourth wall to advertise Disney’s other properties, is a delight to watch prance, frolic and stress around the stage, fleeing after our Young Simba and Nala. Leaping to the other end of the spectrum, where Frobe’s comedic talents dominate, Jossylnn Hlenti’s Nala and Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy’s Sarabi propel the lionesses to the forefront. Hlenti’s attitude, her precise movement to Garth Fagan’s choreography commands a stage presence equal to that of Ohene Maccarthy’s stoic authority.

Particularly for the lionesses, Fagan’s rhythmic choreography is powerfully adept, traditional dance mingles with a performance element of movement for the puppets. From the heavy beats of the Hyena’s break dancing to the looser, community feel of One by One, with free-flowing birds and the big number He Lives In You, The Lion King is as much a production for the dance enthusiasts as it is the vocalists and the storytellers.

So, in the immortal words of Scar himself; ‘Be Prepared’. Be prepared for a pride’s golden age, a glorious production which celebrates life, redemption and rejects the wallowing doldrums of regret. A story for the ages, from Shakespeare to the Savannah, The Lion King from stage conception has been a 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 Sunday March 29th 2020. Tickets are available from: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/disneys-the-lion-king/edinburgh-playhouse/

Photo Copyright – Walt Disney Company

The King – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Written by David Michôd and Joel Edgerton

Directed by David Michôd

David Michôd‘s Henriad drama, The King, comprises three works of the bard, taking Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts 1 and 2and Henry V and forming them into a composite piece of historical drama. The drunkard, layabout son of King Henry IV, Hal finds himself under the pressure of ascending the throne, progressing from being his father’s last resort to the only available choice. Young, unproven and on the downward path towards a bloody venture, Hal surrounds himself with advisors who, in typical Shakespearean fashion, are of Machiavellian intention.

Political drama is at the forefront of Joel Edgerton‘s and Michôd’s interpretation of the trio of texts, in keeping with Shakespeare’s writings, but they seek to reinforce an authenticity in their characters. Complimentary to the audience, perhaps to a fault, the script is subtle. With the gift of a ball to the juvenile king and other matters which go unspoken, it’s refreshing to see exposition or symbolism left for audiences to unearth; at the same time, this does fail to encourage a heightened response in key moments.

It would seem the people’s newest champion of cinema, Timothée Chalamet, continues his rise in a breakthrough career in his interpretation of Hal. A round-shouldered, inverting individual who grows to stand tall, he becomes a beacon for the people of England following countless wars and battles. More so than other performers, Chalamet treats The King as a reflection of the three plays, showcasing a richer characterisation and physical evolution than his co-stars.

A buffoonish pursuer of vice, Falstaff is perhaps Shakespeare’s most significant creation outside of a titular role, a character who transcends a variety of mediums. Edgerton’s judgement of the performance rivals Chalamet’s dedication to the film, which is understandable given his primary writing role. An enabler, the character dips into the mystical advisor of cinematic tropes, but it allows Edgerton to captivate, holding our attention with ease. That’s especially true since his balance of humour never exceeds mild sarcasm nor jolly defiance to Hal, or in scenes where a playful rivalry blooms with Robert Pattinson’s Dauphin.

Taking a Shakespearean interpretation, the Dauphin would be well at home in the Globe Theatre. Pattinson’s exaggerated mannerisms are menacing, but in doing so he stretches into an over-reaching antagonist. A peculiar choice in direction, Michôd here creates a divide in the film’s tone, pushing more nuanced performances against that of excess. It makes for an entertaining opponent, but one suspects there are always a few seconds cut before a cackle or curling of the fingers would infect Pattinson’s performance.

While the comfort of the living room appeals to streaming releases, a cinematic scale of the action demonstrates Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography. Going beyond the battles or open-air scenes, there’s a profound intimacy in the dimensions of The King. Arkapaw captures the claustrophobic pressure of the courts, the bedrooms and inner sanctums. It’s not only a visual but an aural sensation which captivates the atmosphere of the film. Nicholas Britell’s score accentuates the sublime imagery, never pervading a scene or interrupting tension, seeking solely to act alongside the visual design of a scene, whether this grows in grandeur or slithers back into silence to allow impact.

The King is an engrossing update which lifts Shakespeare’s characters into a piece of classical cinematic filmmaking. It does sometimes falter, though, in failing to fit together the sum of its parts into a tight, comprehensive package. The pieces lie there, each a component of something which would generate buzz, but there are gaps where parts fail to align. Its blade has little sharpness, and although it’s a well-crafted piece of film, there’s no edge to Michôd’s The King outside of its visuals and solid performances. Those are selling features in their own right, but not enough to quite carry it to the lofty expectations it seeks.

Review originally published for WeeReview: https://theweereview.com/review/the-king/

The King is available for streaming and in cinema’s from November

Macbeth @ Festival Theatre

Image contribution:
National Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Rufus Norris

Despite its notoriety as the pinnacle of the theatrical world, few can adapt the Bard’s words well. We all know the tale, or at least we boast about knowing it. Macbeth is far from a straightforward production. A step to the left and it becomes dreary, dank and uninteresting. A tad to the right and it lunges headfirst into absurdist horror. Norris has blindly stumbled into both, with deep regrets. As slashes of ingenuity beam out amidst weak decisions.

Thane of Glamis, hereafter Thane of Cawdor, soon after King. Macbeth is the archetype of corruption, blind ambition and self-prophecy. The once heroic general, his appetite for power wetted by a trio of wyrd sisters who sing of his upcoming rise to glory. His wife, tempting the desire out of Macbeth to commit treason and ascend the throne.

Without its women, Macbeth is nothing. True in almost all iterations both the Witches and Lady Macbeth hold the foundations. Without them, no performance – as well delivered as it may be could save the show. Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth has the spite, inner turmoil of guilt and the desire to push her beloved further. Though through poor direction, Lady Macbeth has lost her bite. Whilst the passion between the pair is evident in their embrace, little convinces us this woman would sacrifice her milk for the infamous four humours.  Brutally swept aside are the witches, all in a form too like the next. Little distinguishes them, their plastic sheeting as ‘cloaks’ raising brows more.

Macbeth’s downfall is often the questioning of his manhood, he is a ‘pathetic man’ in Shakespeare’s most misogynistic piece. None of this is present, the ‘unsexing’ of Lady Macbeth or taunts are not highlighted in performance. Again, let down through direction. Michael Nardone takes Macbeth in a subtle shade; his madness is more unfolded than shrieking. Whilst the spectres at the dinner table may lousily apparate – his terror is all too real.

This set, dwarfing the performing, is not utilized well for Macbeth. Perhaps in a completely different production, this would work. The craftsmanship is sublime, though to be blunt, seems more at home washed up on the beach. Often clad in plastics, the rot is tangible but to ill-effect. The looming charcoal blooms utilized as poles for the witches to hang from both perplex and take the tension away from the set. At first, amidst the grime of the setting, a use of palette offers a foolish momentary hope. King Duncan garbed in rich red suggests a costume design with merit. Dashed as the remaining post-apocalyptic coats, hoodies and jeans are a mainstay.

Not all bodes grim though, for a variety of performers channel their character to fruition. As mentioned Besterman and Nardone had potential, let down by directorial decisions. Patrick Robinson’s Banquo along with Ross Waiton’s MacDuff feel most at home with the tragedy. They carry scenes remarkably, tremendous credit due to them especially for Waiton, who shares the stage with Malcolm, portrayed by Joseph Brown, perhaps the weakest player in a National Theatre production.

Woeful as this product may be, there are aspects which keep it from the grave. Despite its familiarity, Macbeth is not easy to adapt. It certainly isn’t any easier to offer anything new. Norris fails to bring life to the show, wrapping it in too drab an appearance. Crossing broadly into camp horror with beheadings, reversed masks all fuel a meek adaptation of a definitive text.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub:
https://www.thereviewshub.com/macbeth-festival-theatre-edinburgh/