The Lion King Unmasked: An Access All Areas Experience

Blogger Rachel Nafzger tells how she rediscovered the Lion King with help from audio description. 

You all know The Lion King, right? The one where an assortment of animals flock to the base of a tall proud rock. At its summit, a baboon with a lined face and wide wise eyes slowly raises a baby to face the blazing sun.

This Disney classic has been one of my favorites since childhood, watching endless replays on a battered old video tape. But as I grew up, crawling round the carpet mimicking Nala’s moves was replaced with a desire to see professionals do a much better job of it on stage.

Julie Taymor’s musical adaption of The Lion King has been running in the West End since 1999. In 2006 dreams came true when I witnessed it for the first time…and then again in 2007…and then again in 2012!

I was drawn back by the show’s vibrant contrasts and colours. Being registered sight impaired since birth, these allowed me to use my small amount of remaining vision to relish in every single second.

Words can do many things, but they can’t quite do justice when describing the excitement that built in my chest as the theatre darkened. The exclamations of me and my friends as the lights rose in time with a powerful chorus of live voices, finally exploding into a cacophony of blues and greens and browns and golds that lit up every corner of my mind and left me transfixed right up until the very last note.

“I’ve seen this show three times, and I would come back and see it again…” I proclaimed proudly to anyone who asked. But in time, that all changed. After years battling a progressive eye condition and many well-intended operations, I became one of those rare beings with no perception of light in either eye. I was shocked by how much this turned my world upside-down. The extreme effect that no longer being able to see the sunshine, light through a window or the difference between day and night can have. Readjustment was tough and slow and filled with a conscious effort to keep doing the things I loved.

“Let’s go to the theatre,” my friends would suggest chirpily, “we could go back and see The Lion King.” But, really, how would it be the same? Sitting facing a stage that was now blank and dark. Feeling the excitement swell around me…yet strangely shut off from it. Scrabbling around in the back of my mind for a long-lost image. Complimented, if I was lucky, by a whispered description in my ear. Someone else’s hurried interpretation. No, it just wouldn’t do. So, I prepared to say “hakuna matata”, preserve the happy memories, and hum along to the soundtrack in the privacy of my own home.

Rachel stands by a poster outside the theatre.
Rachel stands by a poster outside the theatre

That was until I got the opportunity to attend a VocalEyes audio-described performance. The day began with a touch tour. A chance to be let loose in a room full of forbidden things. We were surrounded by a selection of some of the 200+ masks and puppets used to create those incredible creatures we all know and love.

With the wide-eyed awe of a child in a toy shop I blundered from object to object. My hands finding a broad feathered collar here…a sturdy wicker woven corset there…shoes with splayed, gnarled claws…a tumble of braided wool and beads. It was hard to fully relate the things I was touching to the whirl of sound and energy I knew would follow.

Stiff-collared silky cloaks swished from mannequins. Daintily embroidered body pieces laid lifelessly across tabletops. Masks with frozen wooden faces stacked up in lines. But members of the crew and our two amazing audio describers (Willie Elliot and Miranda Yates) were always there, ready to provide an explanation, answer a question, give a passionate insight into the work that they do.

As I chatted animatedly to a lady from the make-up team as she guided me round Pumba’s pineapple-esque hairdo, I reflected on what a privilege this really was. A chance to peek behind the bright lights and slickness. Opening a door into a new world where people scurried around in the shadows, prepping and pinning and touching up painted bristles with tiny brushes.

Rachel feels the feathers of the Zazu puppet, held by the puppeteer
On the touch tour Rachel feels the feathers of the Zazu puppet, held by the puppeteer

I sat in the stalls, struck for the fourth time by the opening of ‘the circle of life’. It took me by surprise, no longer able to see the warning of the fading house lights. But the now familiar voice of Willie Elliot, streaming through an infrared headset, distracted me from the fact that everything in front of me was blank and dark. His careful descriptions filled my mind with an image that opened out the stage in a completely different way.

The live performance of those oh-so-famous songs was accompanied not by a cacophony of colour, but by actual three-dimensional characters that leapt and lunged, reared and rolled. All with their spinning tails and beaded backs. And just like that, the gap was bridged between the objects of the touch tour and the action of the show. The blustering hornbill Zazu suddenly had a face! With bug eyes and an expression frozen in disapproval. Rafiki the Baboon’s round cushiony bottom wiggled cheekily. The course grasslands swooned and swayed, attached to their dancing puppeteers.

Drawing breath in the interval, my friends and I shared details, “weren’t those dancing animals stunning?” “Did you see the lioness martial arts moves?” Details that had always been there. Details I had been completely oblivious to before. Details that we were still chattering on about long after it was over, as we joined the crowds streaming out onto busy London streets.

That day I discovered just what an amazing job VocalEyes really does.

They had filled in the piece of a puzzle that I didn’t even know was missing. Unmasking a favourite show in a way I never knew was possible. Allowing me to smile and say: “I’ve just seen the Lion King and I still love it.”

Missed the Lion King in London? VocalEyes is audio describing the Lion King in all its glory on Wednesday 16 October at the Bristol Hippodrome.

See the full listings for audio described arts and theatre.