IN ITS prime, the theatre of Dionysus in Athens could hold up to 17,000 people – 5,000 more than Glasgow Hydro. When I was there last week it was somewhat quieter, just me, my wife, my children and half a dozen other tourists.
For anyone interested in theatre – and particularly those who work in it – this famous 2,400-year–old ruin is a place of pilgrimage. This is where the artform as we know it began, with the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. And it’s incredibly well preserved. You can still sit in the auditorium, although, ironically, trying to express yourself might get you into trouble in a country still nervous about rioting. While we were there, a woman began singing and banging a drum and the tour guide threatened to call the police. It was great theatre.
The last piece of theatre I went to see before we went on holiday was, of all things, The Lion King at Edinburgh Playhouse. What the ancient Greeks would have made of a Disney stage show is anyone’s guess. There are details they would recognise – a king forced into exile, most obviously – but Simba is a long way from Oedipus.
It felt, weirdly, as if I was witnessing the beginning and end of theatre in the same week. The Lion King is a strange, unwieldy show, which flings an extraordinary amount of resources, energy and talent – fabulous costumes, breathtaking puppetry, a live orchestral score – at a clunky, padded out retelling of a simple and familiar children’s story.
The movie of The Lion King was 89 minutes, including the credits; the live show is over two hours. It has to be, perhaps, to justify charging up to £75 a ticket (some seats and shows offer the much cheaper option of £25) but it’s a tale you could easily tell in half the time. It reminded me of a movie retrofitted with 3D – lots of added spectacle, but no extra story or meaning.
How does this constitute the end of theatre? The Lion King is, clearly, a huge, international theatrical success story – the highest grossing Broadway show of all time. But why was it made into a two-hour musical spectacular in the first place? It’s clearly not because this was the most effective way to tell this particular story. Time and again, you can see the stage designers wrestling with the challenge of recreating key scenes from a hugely popular film in a recognisable way on stage – and always in big, bold brushstrokes. While the solutions are often ingenious, drama comes second to spectacle; at no point does it feel as if anything is at stake.
Sure, the scene in which Mufasa gets crushed by a stampede is a technical triumph, but so what if his son, played in this production by a child who’s pretty good at singing and dancing but hopeless at expressing grief, acts as if he’s lost a bag of sweets rather than his beloved father? And what is the point of building a two-hour show towards a dramatic final confrontation between Simba and Scar if Scar then confesses to his crime with virtually no prompting at all? The film got away with this because, well, it’s a Disney film. In a theatre show it feels jarringly anticlimactic.
Plenty of theatre is adapted from other sources –films, books, TV shows, poems, songs. Plenty of stories gain fresh resonance from being told differently. That principle is a foundation of theatre; if it wasn’t, every new play would vanish after its first run. The Lion King, though, left me feeling more like I was watching a global franchise being extended than a story being reinterpreted in an exciting new way.
If I say it felt to me like the end of theatre, it was because watching a woman banging a drum in an ancient ruin, and getting into trouble for it, was so much more dramatic. It reminded me of the power of a simple, live gesture, and how that too is a foundation of theatre (Greek theatre began as epic stories told by just one actor – even Sophocles never used more than three). The Lion King reminded me that, with all the theatrical tools in the world at your disposal, you can still end up saying almost nothing.