Recently, Disney came to China and opened up their newest and (so far) biggest park yet. By the time it’s finished, it will be three times the size of Hong Kong’s Disneyland Resort, and will come in at a mere CN¥ 34,000,000,000, which may explain the cost of the merchandise in the ‘World of Disney’ shop. Still, cynicism aside, it does still have a healthy dollop of Disney magic to offer, and nowhere was that magic more evident than in the production of ‘The Lion King’ that we saw last week.
As an English teacher, I have often thought that the only thing ‘Hamlet’ was missing was a buffalo stampede, a gang of hyenas, a highly unlikely suspension of the food chain and some deeply uncomfortable, if only implied, Lion sex. The film has rightfully gone down as a classic of its genre, and the Broadway production has had rave reviews ever since it first opened in 1997. Having heard such amazing things about it, it seemed only sensible to go and see it when it came to our new home town.
Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint. The use of puppets and costumes is astonishing and utterly immersive, and the visual spectacle more than made up for the fact that the entire script was in Mandarin, thus rendering it difficult to understand. Obviously not for the majority of the audience; I think having it in Mandarin is really a very sensible option given that we’re in Shanghai, but I must admit that given my language ‘skills’ (I can say, “Hello”, “one of those, please” and “please turn left here”, but I struggle with “From the day we arrive on the planet, and, blinking, step into the sun, there’s more to see than can ever be seen – more to do than can ever be done” to be honest) I couldn’t make out much of the script. But, of course, this is The Lion King, and at this stage who even needs the script to follow the action? The whole show is astonishingly visual. The music is emotionally charged, and the melodies soar as high as they have ever since 1994. Mufasa has a booming voice, Scar gets booed by the audience, Nala and Simba play mischievously as children and a little less mischievously as adults, everyone laughs at Rafiki, Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa, and the hyenas somehow manage to achieve the mix of being equally funny and sinister throughout.
As evenings out go, it was a thoroughly colourful and hugely enjoyable one. Yes, there is something idiosyncratically bemusing about Chinese theatre etiquette (basically it seems anything goes, including playing on phones, talking throughout, coming and going at random intervals in the middle of the big set pieces, and only clapping at the end for approximately 12 seconds) but it all added to the atmosphere of the evening. As if there were any bonuses needed, Disneytown also has its own Cheesecake Factory, and so we were able to watch the whole thing with stomachs full of deep-fried Mozzarella, burgers and milkshakes. The show has closed down for a while now – apparently the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie will be opening at the Grand Theatre, accompanied no doubt by Johnny Depp croaking out his ‘maybe it was funny the first time’ Keith Richards/David Bowie impersonation for the millionth time – but if the tale of Simba’s rise to power should ever return, I’d definitely be happy to contribute again to paying off some of the cost of the resort and spending my evening being entertained and dazzled by a genuinely charming show.