Julie Taymor wasn’t the obvious choice to put Disney’s The Lion King on stage. It’s not that the maverick American theatre maker was a purveyor of small-cast studio-bound off-Broadway experiments who might be out of her depth with something so epic. She was used to creating big shows utilising a multitude of global theatre styles and techniques. If anything, Taymor’s pedigree in directing productions of Shakespeare and classic operas that incorporated masks and puppetry were maybe considered a little bit too out there to take on a high-profile commercial venture based on the success of the Oscar-winning 1994 animated film of the same name.
Audiences might be more familiar with the show’s score, composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice to accompany Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s book, with an underscore by Hans Zimmer. The show’s story of Simba the lion and his exile from his pride following the murder of his father drew inspiration from Hamlet and Greek tragedy. In this respect, Taymor’s appointment as costume designer and co-puppet and mask designer as well as director wasn’t so far off the mark after all.
Twenty-two years, productions in nineteen countries, audiences running into millions and numerous awards later, The Lion King is about to open at Edinburgh Playhouse for an almost four-month long run that sees it return to the city for the first time in a decade. For Taymor, who stopped off in London last month to revisit the show, watching her original vision come of age after so long remains a labour of love.
“It’s like visiting your baby,” she says. “The same team has been together for twenty years, and even in London people have been working on it together for eleven years, so there’s a real family feeling there between all the cast and collaborators. Even though from the outside it might seem like it’s just a big hit west end show, it’s actually a very special show. Any age can connect with it, so it isn’t just a family show. It really talks about very deep issues that are to do with family and bringing up children.”
Taymor hadn’t seen Disney’s original animated feature film of The Lion King when she was first approached to sign up for the stage show. When she saw a tape of it “I was gob-smacked. It was such beautiful animation, and the idea of putting a stampede onstage was irresistible. I think the fact that what I’d done before was quite left-field had its advantages in terms of transforming what I call a cartoon into a live event where performers bring animals to life in a physical way using masks and puppetry.
“No-one knew it was going to become as big as it did, and I think The Lion King helped open things up for shows like War Horse???, and for people who understand that puppetry isn’t just for children, and who appreciate the beauty of seeing actors bring animals to life. That’s what touches people on an emotional level, and it all goes back to the earliest forms of making theatre, when people made rabbits with their hands and cast shadows onto a cave wall.”
Taymor’s own theatrical roots date back to her growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, where she joined children’s theatre groups. As a teenager she studied in Sri Lanka and India, and aged sixteen she worked with mime and masks at the L’ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. In the early 1970s Taymor interned with Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre, and worked with Herbert Blau, another key figure in American avant-garde theatre.
Taymor later moved to Indonesia, where she founded Teatr Loh, an international company of actors, musicians, dancers and puppeteers from Japan, Bali, Sudan, America and Europe. In the 1980s she brought her work to the New York Shakespeare Festival, fusing her distinct use of masks and puppetry with classical texts. She was Tony-nominated for her production of Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass, and when she was approached by Disney was directing a production of Wagner’s opera, The Flying Dutchman.
In film, Taymor directed Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange and Alan Cummings in an adaptation of Titus Andronicus, and was Oscar nominated for Frida, which starred Salma Hayek as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She later directed big-screen Beatles jukebox musical, Across the Universe, and cast Helen Mirren as a female Prospero in her film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Taymor’s UK visit comes inbetween working on The Glorias: A Life on the Road, a biopic of feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
“I never wanted to be locked in or boxed in as the puppet lady,” Taymor says of her rich and diverse CV. “I do lots of movies now, but I’m still inspired by world theatre.”
In its multi-cultural melding of styles and techniques performed by an international cast, The Lion King has shades of what Peter Brook did with his nine-hour epic???, The Mahabharata??? Taymor also cites French avant-garde icon, Ariane Mnouchkine, as an influence. Taymor’s own theatre is rooted in a mythology exemplified??? By The Lion King.
“It’s incredibly simple,’ she says. “It’s a prodigal son story, and that could be happening in Harlem, Brixton or among the British upper classes. The story is so relatable to everyone. It deals with death like Bambi did, and Disney never showed any fear in that, but at its heart, The Lion King is also an entertaining piece of theatre.”
Taymor tells a well-known story about a family who went to see The Lion King with their daughter, who were still in mourning after their other daughter had died.
“That child heard the music and the lyrics and she said to her parents, ‘Sarah is with us, isn’t she,’ says Taymor. “That’s why The Lion King is successful. It’s more than just a story. It’s an ancient ritual. If as theatre-makers we can make something like that happen, then we’ve done our job.”
The Lion King, The Playhouse, Edinburgh, December 5-March 29, 2020.
The Herald, November 30th 2019