Behind the scenes with the kings of the musical jungle
It weighs two and a half stone, and restricts the movement of the actor wearing it dramatically, but Garth Fagan’s choreography helps to compensate for his reduced mobility, and when Scar walks across the stage, it is a stealthy strut that we observe; the physical limitation becomes a key character trait for Simba’s nemesis.
Hanging beside this wonder of construction is a stunning beaded corset, which has lost some beads and needs to be restrung. It is just one of many ornate corsets in the show, the maintenance of which forms a core part of the costume department’s responsibilities.
Although all the corsets have a template, each is unique and hand-beaded, a job that takes two to three weeks per piece; in the same way no animal would have the same colours in the jungle, each corset has its own shade and pattern.
From the stalls, you can’t put your finger on the differences, except to note each animal in the 33-strong ensemble is distinctive, even when moving as part of a pack.
The actor playing Zazu – Simba’s avian confidant – has yet to collect his costume for the evening’s performance. His coat – the shape of a classic formal suit enlivened with geometric print – hangs stiff on a hanger, the tail rolled to keep it curled, so when released, it gives the effect of a feathery bouffant.
Zazu, like the rest, comes to life as part-actor, part-puppet. In this case, a waft of parachute silk is given shape by the actor’s hand movements and a coiled slink that gives lifelike motion to the neck is topped by a heavy-lidded hornbill’s head.
Downstairs, a trio of prop-makers are retouching his huge beak, and working on some of the other 260 puppets used in the show, using tiny brushes to enliven paintwork that has faded under the hot stage lights or been discoloured by an actor’s sweat or make-up. Others are attending to mechanical repairs.
The large masks worn by the principal characters – Mufasa’s kingly halo, Scar’s angular face – are electronic, and are operated by the actors. With others, the puppets’ discrete parts are attached by wire to the actors’ heads so when they move, the mask moves too, making its animation a natural extension of the human choreography. But others still are puppets in their simplest form, brought to life with a tug of strings, or, in the case of a bounding herd of gazelles, by a repurposed bicycle.
From the centre of the stalls, however, the discrete elements of live performer and puppet coalesce as a singular vision. In the opening moments, the stage is bare except for a massive sun rising against a pale backdrop. But the audience are looking in the wrong place for the show to begin.
As the lights dim and the orchestra warms up with The Circle of Life, a parade of animals makes its way through the aisles of the theatre, so close you can touch them. An elephant’s trunk brushes against the extended legs of a comfortable spectator. There is a collective gasp as a giraffe teeters unsteadily by, a grand entrance that heralds only the beginning of 180 minutes of breath-taking spectacle.
The Lion King is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from April 27th to June 22nd