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The Lion, the King and the Wardrobe


A performer from The Lion King. Photo: Phil Tragen

A performer from The Lion King. Photo: Phil Tragen

A performer from The Lion King. Photo: Phil Tragen

It's as if the real world has been rolled away on casters and we've been left behind in a dusky savannah landscape. In the half-light, we can just about make out an elephant; a giraffe too and, make no mistake about it, that's a pack of hyenas up ahead.

The sun never quite comes up backstage at 'The Lion King', but what shines through is the meticulous attention to detail on each of the costumes laid out in row after dizzying row.

No two are the same, just as no two animals in the wild have exactly the same markings. The lionesses, the zebras, the giraffes, the hyenas and the gazelles are all individual entities – each one handmade in a process that can take several weeks.

For example, a lioness's beaded corset can take a fortnight to complete, but it will look stunning on stage when it is matched with billowing silks and handmade masks.

"It's very specialised craft work," explains wardrobe assistant Ellie Kemp. "We have lots of different people who do different aspects of the costumes – hand-painting, screen-printing, leather-working, beading – so it will get sent around the country for each bit to be done."

After that, the wardrobe department, headed by Laura Linstead, takes over to ensure that each one is kept in pristine condition during the show's eight weekly performances.

That means constant maintenance: a bead replaced here, a rip fixed there, a hyena boot stuck down after a particularly rigorous performance.

One note pinned to a pillar in the wings asks the bird ladies to watch for grubby armpits while another appeals to people not to touch Timon, the meerkat, who is under a protective cover. The sign reads: "Please do not touch the head, the oils in your hands will damage his face."

The same care is taken that each performer is matched to their costume with utter precision. A special paint is individually mixed to match their flesh tones, then shoes and tights are made to order

Deputy head of wardrobe Rachel Morris explains: "If someone goes away on holiday, we have to remix the paint because they might be a shade darker than before."

The result is a breathtaking, vivid show that has wowed audiences on five continents.

When the idea came about of transferring the blockbusting Disney animation film to the stage, film producer Tom Schumacher famously said: "That's the worst idea I have ever heard."

But that was before award-winning director Julie Taymor took on the job. After thousands of hours of research with a team of hundreds, she succeeded in transforming the stage into an African wilderness.

As she puts it herself: "The actors are moving sculptures, their mechanical limbs working together to bring the jungle to life."

You'll can almost feel the heat of the African sun when it rises spectacularly on stage. Go along and see for yourself.

'The Lion King' opens at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on April 27 and runs until June 22. See bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

Weekend Magazine