Lion Taymor

Director Julie Taymor

Director Julie Taymor

I knew I was going to use a punny headline of some sort, this was perhaps the least offensive among my options.  I saw The Lion King tonight, admittedly years after its opening, and awhile after its first appearance in Toronto (this is the King’s second coming).  Everyone’s already seen it so what’s the point of a review?

I noticed a couple of things tonight, and they’re the subject I’ll talk about.

A lot of ink has been spilled concerning Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a hugely expensive musical that drew negative reviews.  I couldn’t help but notice that Taymor seemed to take a lot of flak, something I wondered about.

Has Taymor earned the right to flop? The Lion King is one of several successes.  At the Metropolitan Opera, her production of The Magic Flute does for opera during the Christmas season what The Nutcracker does for ballet companies: cha-ching!  And there are films as well, some (Frida) more successful than others (The Tempest).  I’m particularly fond of Across the Universe, by the way.

I have been thinking about a connection I keep making in my head between Taymor and Robert Lepage.  It crystallized today, when I noticed some interesting parallels.

Man + machine = animal

Man + machine = animal

Both of them seem to like puppets and odd constructions attached to the human body.  Taymor? Tonight I was struck in Lion King by all those fabulous contraptions attached to the characters.  I believe the Spiderman musical was a more daring version going in the same general direction, which is to say, promoting spectacle and theatricality.  Frida, by the way, also explores similar themes of a very different sort; whereas the animals in Lion King are almost cyborgs in their marriage of man & machine, in Frida it’s the human-machine interface in the presence of catastrophic injury and disability. How weird, I think, that we seem to have this parallel thing happening.

From Damnation de Faust

From Damnation de Faust (follow link for more images)

Lepage also is playing with things attached to humans.  In Damnation de Faust we see soldiers climbing walls attached to wires, then –as if slain—hanging on those wires.  Demons dance with sylphs on similar wires, while multiple Jesuses climb the walls in a re-enactment of a crucifixion (not my favourite part of his staging by the way).  In Das Rheingold we watched gods dancing on the end of wires, particularly Loge the trickster god, walking backwards up a wall.  The Rhine Maidens were virtually puppets who could sing, floating high above the stage.

There’s a similarity, too, in some of the critical noises I am hearing.  We heard about the injuries to cast-members in the Spiderman musical, due to the risky aerial manoeuvres.  Something similar—on a smaller scale—happened with Lepage and Die Walküre.  There have been reports of singers slipping on the set.

And I think that’s where I see the parallel.  Both Lepage & Taymor are directors with a heavy investment in elaborate mise-en-scène (both in terms of time and money).  Among the headlines I considered before discarding were “actor envy” and “those who can’t act direct”.   I was trying to identify the conflict I sense between the performers and these two directors.  Both Taymor & Lepage seem to be the stars of their respective work, so much so that it’s almost inconceivable to conceive of a star appearing in one of their shows (and I set Lepage’s Ring cycle aside because of course the Metropolitan will cast their shows with stars regardless of who directs).

Robert Lepage (Canadian Press photo)

Robert Lepage (Canadian Press photo)

I wonder if that explains the flak coming at Taymor & Lepage.  Yes, actors were injured in the Spiderman musical, and someone might have been hurt in Walkuere.   I wonder, though if maybe there’s something else at work, considering especially how gleeful some of the reports became concerning Taymor’s failure.

These two directors seem to supplant the actors / singers one expects to see starring in their works.  I can see how that might put a few noses out of joint.

I am seeing Lepage’s Walküre Saturday afternoon in a Scarborough movie theatre, one of many thousands who’ll also see it live from a theatre somewhere in the world.

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3 Responses to Lion Taymor

  1. John G says:

    Lepage can most certainly act. His Elsinore ex Machina was an extraordinary performance. He also worked with Denis Arcand (Jesus de Montreal) before turning to directing. IMDB shows that he’s still acting

  2. Alison Gray says:

    I wonder how much of this is influenced by the emergence of Cirque du Soleil.

  3. barczablog says:

    John, very true. I saw him dance & act in Eonnagata in November (there’s even a review in the Nov archive). Perhaps your reminder is in response to the headline i considered and discarded (“those who can’t act, direct”), but i was seeking to identify a particular dynamic (or shall we call it “conflict”) between the directors and the public, because I think there’s an over-eagerness to jump on these two (Lepage & Taymor). I would never want to suggest that either director is in any sense envious; i was effectively invoking that old line “those who can’t do teach,” which I haven’t found to be true either.

    Alison, I think you’re right to make the Cirque-connection, given how many of these wall-walking moments remind us of Lepage’s work with that troupe. But to properly do justice to your comment, yes I believe it’s true that Cirque du Soleil have legitimized circus procedures, brought them closer to the mainstream and thereby enlarging the theatre vocabulary.

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