INTERVIEW SPECIAL: The Lion King roars into Edinburgh

For the first time ever Scottish audiences will be flocking to the Edinburgh Playhouse to witness the highly acclaimed production of The Lion King. After sixteen years of successfully being performed across the world, The Lion King is participating in its first UK and Ireland tour. Edinburgh will be the only Scottish city turned into an African jungle for the next three months until 18th January 2014 when the production leaves to tour the rest of the UK and Ireland for the next two and a half years.

This production of The Lion King is the debut of Nicholas Nkuna to the show, who plays the title role of Simba. The first preview performance of the production began on October 11th and this acted as the perfect opportunity for Nkuna to gain a taste of the Edinburgh audience. “Each city has its own energy, but because we have lots of Scottish references in the show they just loved it.”

Actress Ava Brennan, who plays Nala, added that the size of the theatre, which holds more than 3000 seats, making it the largest in the UK, increased their anxieties: “It made us more nervous than we usually are. At the end of the show everybody loved it.”

It took a staggering 23 trucks to bring the production to Edinburgh, making it the largest theatre production to tour Europe. Backstage everyone has grown close together, however it is no small herd; the huge international theatre production consisting of 52 cast members and around 150 crew members: “We are like a family because we spend a lot of time together,” Brennan explained. “With eight shows a week and all the rehearsals and stuff, we are quite close, all of us, and it is really a nice atmosphere.”

Nkuna added: “We are blessed enough to meet all of these amazing people from different countries on tour as there is almost five continents on one production. How amazing is that? Not a lot of people get to experience all of these diverse cultures.”

The Julie Taymor production recently celebrated its 15th year anniversary and with 210,000 seats already sold for the Edinburgh dates, the cast and crew can continue to singHakuna Matata (no worries) of their show becoming endangered any time soon. Gugwana Dlamini, who plays baboon Rafiki in the theatre production, believes it is the content ofThe Lion King which keeps the show a success for all generations: “More than anything else, it is the story itself. It is a beautiful story and I wouldn’t say that it is a story you would expect only children to enjoy, even adults are connected somehow with the music and also with the lions as you can relate to what is happening in your life. So I wouldn’t say it is just the puppetry work or the costumes but it is everything; the story, puppetry, the stage set and the lighting and everything. That is what makes The Lion King so beautiful and unique.”

One of the most crucial and breath-taking moments of the whole production is the openingCircle of Life scene itself, where every animal appears on the stage. It is no wonder thatDlamini, who has the added pressure of being the first performer on the stage to open the show to the audience, finds this her favourite scene: “The Circle of Life is my favourite one because this is where we celebrate the birth of the King. Everyone is so excited and beautiful and you see all of the puppets coming on the stage. The dancers are putting on their zebra and gazelle costumes on. It is my favourite number of the show, the Circle of Life.”

The Circle of Life has been a literal continuous cycle for Dlamini as she has been involved with The Lion King ever since the release of Disney’s animation film back in 1994: “Before then (working on stage) I did the soundtrack for the animation of The Lion King so I was involved in South Africa when the producers came down to South Africa. I was one of the singers who sang in The Lion King.”

Having to dress in gorgeous costumes and dance in elegant animal influenced routines means that the performers have to be in top condition to pull off an energised routine eight times a week. “The resting is a must,” Dlamini explained. “Yes we do have times where we hang around and have some fun, but the resting is more important physically. Before the show starts we do a physical warm up as well as a vocal warm up so we are all here an hour and fifteen minutes before the show starts so that keeps us energetic. We exercise. We join the local gyms to keep ourselves fit because we have to do big performances in six days and if you don’t rest enough then it will be hard to do eight performances. And, more than anything else, it is dedication. So if you are dedicated in anything that you are doing you can keep up to do the eight performances.”

It’s not only a highly acclaimed soundtrack which makes this an intricate and talked about performance, but the extravagant animal puppets designed themselves. Head of puppets and masks, Will Pearce, described how tribunal influences made them stick widely to source material: “A lot of the materials we use are natural materials. We use loads of feathers. The feathers of the Mufasa mask are peacock feathers.” The dancers also have to learn how to control their puppets. The tallest puppets in the production are four, 18-foot exotic giraffes from I Just Can’t Wait to Be King and it takes time for the dancer to become one with these beasts: “They take about four to six weeks to learn to walk on the stilts,”Pearce explained. “We fit them to the stilts, then we fit a head on them and they are literally like Bambi to start with as they take a while to gain the balance and get walking. It is quite intense for them to begin with, but because they are trained dancers they are more in tune with their legs and their body so they pick it up pretty quick.”

Living in the city for the next three months is something Dlamini is looking forward to: “The first two weeks are always hectic for us because we have rehearsals and interviews going on. But after two weeks we can say, 'Ok fine, just before the show let me go and explore the city' and then come back and rest and perform.”

While the majority of us are dreading the return of the gloomy Winter weather and will flee to The Lion King to fantasise about the ideal African climate, this can’t be said for Dlamini: “I’m really looking forward to the snow. I hope there is going to be a lot of snow. I love the snow and I’m so glad to be here in Edinburgh and I’m hoping the whole of Scotland will come.”

The Lion King is at the Edinburgh Playhouse until 18th January 2014. For tickets and information visit