The Lion King

What can possibly justify including The Lion King in this review of London Millennium Shakespeare productions? It's not exactly Shakespeare, after all.

Well, what if I told you that it was quite simply the best, most spectacularly satisfying production of all those I attended during my visit, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that the story and characters are trite, the words and lyrics puerile, all regurgitated almost intact from the film of the same name.

The Lion King is simply awe inspiring, however, when it sticks to what is does best: no words, or invented African ones, half sung, half chanted to deeply resonant, vaguely African rhythms; humans transformed into animal totems through the sheer magic of costume and choreography; all coming together to form moving tableau against the many-colored backdrop of deeply artistic perspectives. It resembles nothing so much as the apotheosis of the court masque, reincarnated for audiences of mixed race, class, and cultural background at the opening of the third millennium.

Some critics have drawn an analogy between The Lion King and Hamlet, given the usurping uncle theme; this is too shallow. Rather The Lion King is most closely akin to Shakespeare's great romances Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale—but in an entirely, almost embarrassingly patriarchal and royalist vein. The Lion King transfers the ideology of Western, in particular English royalty to the totemized ancestors of those they were notorious for enslaving, seemingly as a way of legitimating their descendants' claim to value in the society of today (yes, that pronoun is ambiguous on purpose). You wouldn't think this transplant could have a prayer of surviving; yet it does, with an uncanny accuracy of emotional effect—especially in London, where dreams of bonnie Prince William emerging from his cocoon to renew royal leadership in the land seem, in the collective hush that comes over the assembled multitudes at the denouement, to fully meld with the sensation of a revealed royal birthright in the more diverse members of the audience.

We clapped loud and long for the company at the end of the performance, truly thankful for the most satisfying rite of cultural passage we had participated together. And you will too, I venture, if you catch the King in London, or in one of the other major cities in which it is setting up shop and busily recolonizing its world.


The Tempest and Hamlet at the Globe  |  Coriolanus and Cressida with the Almeida  |  The Lion King



The Lion King seen Wednesday, May 31, 2000 17:30. First posted Wednesday, June 21, 2000; last updated .