The Lion King

Martin Portus

What surprises in Julie Taymor’s stage show is the authenticity of her Africa.
The Lion King

 Photograph by Joan Marcus ©Disney

I’m a sucker for elephants. As Africa’s animals and birds herd through the audience for The Circle of Life, that rousing first song of The Lion King, it’s the giant lumbering elephant and her cub that sweeps me to tears.  

Embarrassing I know. What’s more, they’re all just puppets – the giraffes, rhinos, cheetahs, hyenas, zebras and leaping gazelles – but each has a distinctive puppetry crafted and costumed to each animal, and in all the manipulating actors are clearly visible.  The joy is in simultaneously watching human and puppet, admiring how human wit and feeling translates into the spirit and form of another species. 

Sure, you’d expect producers like Disney to get that sort of thing right, especially after their phenomenally successful animated film in 1994.  What surprises in Julie Taymor’s stage show, along with the theatrical imagination with which she re-invents the celluloid version, is the authenticity of her Africa.

More than a background, it powerfully informs the vibrant costuming, patterning and landscape lighting, the choreography and chanting, rhythms and African languages. The pop songs of Elton John and Tim Rice somehow sit comfortably with the African percussion and choral singing which sweeps through Lebo M’s score.  

This African authenticity also underpins the show’s powerful if never laboured message of conservation.  And as South Africa and everyone else this month mourns the death of another great Lion King, Taymor’s patterns and sounds of that continent seem to vibrate even more vividly.  The tale too, of birth, loss, rebellion and restoration – has a Mandela echo – especially as the young lion Simba leaves in exile on his teenage journey to self-knowledge.

Amongst a strongly multicultural cast, New Zealander Nick Afoa gives a muscular and well-sung performance as Simba, making his theatrical debut. As his mighty father, recent NIDA graduate Rob Collins is authoritative and resonant while Josh Quong Tart captures the languid evil of his usurping brother, Scar.  Buyi Zama is richly voiced as the shaman monkey Rafiki. 

Just when the story turns dark Russell Dykstra and Jamie McGregor bring wonderful comedy to the odd couple who share Simba’s exile, a smelly warthog with a big heart and the wise-cracking meerkat Timon.

So the multi-award winning Lion King is a must to see once – and globally 70 million people already have.  This production is the same which ran in 2003-2006 in Melbourne and Sydney and opens this month as nine other identical ones run around the world. Its formula of musical success is well-proven.

This production though and some casting is strangely uneven, with dialogue occasionally lagging and theatrical punctuation missed. While admiring each scene, the arc and drive of the storytelling is sometimes stunted.  I’m sure there’s an army of assistant directors ready to fly in and tighten it up.

4.5 stars out of 5

The Lion King

Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Dates: December 12 - ongoing

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Martin Portus is a Sydney-based writer, critic and media strategist. He is a former ABC Radio National arts broadcaster and TV presenter.