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The Butterfly Lion & other stage animals

by Jack Stanley

The White Lion in The Butterfly Lion

There's a common showbiz saying: ‘never work with children or animals'. Animals on stage have always presented directors with dramatic problems, plus can be quite dangerous... What's more, there's no knowing what bodily functions they might unleash or where they'll wander - if they bother to stay on stage, that is. But creating artificial representations can ruin the theatrical effect if they're not convincing enough. How can creatives best strike a balance between authenticity and reliability?

It's affirming to see that The Butterfly Lion, which will run at Richmond Theatre from Mon 4 - Sat 9 Nov, is only the latest show in a long line of productions to gloriously realise living and breathing animals on stage using inventive stagecraft. The White Lion in it showcases the theatrical developments made, and how advances in stagecraft have made such exciting representations of animals on stage possible.

Stage Animals through the centuries

Although we can't trace back the origins of animals on stage to any specific point, plays throughout history have referred to non-human species making on-stage appearances. Half-human, half-animal Satyrs were regularly features of the chorus in Greek Dramas, while Shakespeare often utilised animals as dramatic devices throughout his work - one of the famous (and bizarre) stage directions in all theatrical history 'Exit, pursued by a bear' can be found in his 1611 comedy The Winter's Tale, marking the death of Antigonus.

It was in the Victorian era however that real animals on stage became a frequent feature. Stage experiences known as Hippodramas (Horse Drama) had plays that were written specifically for actors on horseback. These visually stunning performances saw circus skills combined with the melodramatic genre so popular in the 19th century. The most popular hippodramas included adaptations of Richard III (where the concluding scene at the Battle of Bosworth would have been performed on horseback) and Mazeppa, an epic interpretation of the Byron poem which featured the main protagonist being strapped to a wild horse that would run around the stage. The risk of injury or even death to animals and humans in these productions was understandably high.
The Performing Animals Regulation Act in 1925 brought in some much needed rules on the practice of animals being used for live entertainment and meant that all those wishing to exhibit an animal in a public context have to register with the local council first. This hasn't meant, however, that actual animals have disappeared off Britain's stages. On the contrary - quite recently, an arena show adaptation of Ben Hur in 2009 featured 32 horses (bringing back the Hippodrama for three nights only), and the smash hit play The Audience, starring Helen Mirren and chronicling the Queen's meetings with prime ministers, saw a pack of corgis taking to the stage!

Beyond the Hippodramas

Moving from real life animals on stage to theatrical interpretations, one of the best recent examples must be a certain stage adaptation of a popular Disney film. The Lion King not only won rave reviews for its electric score and story when it opened in the West End, but also for its eclectic array of animals on stage, all played (or operated by) humans. Rather than detracting from the spectacle, the impressive stagecraft only added to the awe, with Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph describing the effect as follows: 'The human presence creating the animal magic is openly signalled in the costumes and puppetry... the over-riding impression is one of freshness - of potentially incongruous elements flowing together quite naturally.' This is one show that certainly got the balance of authenticity and reliability right.

Hippodrama at Astleys Royal Amphitheatre

A poster promoting a hippodrama at
Astleys Royal Amphitheatre

Disney's The Lion King, Lyceum Theatre

Disney's The Lion King, Lyceum Theatre

Pioneering Puppets at the National

War Horse at the National Theatre

Since then, it's been the National Theatre that has picked up the mantle of constantly entertaining and surprising audiences with its animal depictions. His Dark Materials premiered in the National's Olivier Theatre in 2003 with a two-play adaptation of the popular Phillip Pullman trilogy, and saw two armoured bear puppets battle to the death.

These puppetry innovations, in turn, paved the way for the biggest success for the National in the past decade - War Horse. First opening at the National's Olivier Theatre in 2007, the production transferred to the West End (where it broke records as the Highest Weekly Gross for a West End Play), then to Broadway, and finally has gone on tour around the UK. This feat can be attributed largely to the incredible life-size puppets created for the production by Handspring Puppet Company, who won Olivier and Tony Awards for their achievements.

The Butterfly Lion at Richmond Theatre

The Butterfly Lion

This all brings us right up to date with The Butterfly Lion, whose puppet maker Sue Pycroft has in fact worked on His Dark Materials at the Curve, Leicester and on the War Horse Residences at the National.

Come check the show out at Richmond Theatre all this week to see how the hard work of puppeteers and stage creatives can make animals really come to life - even more so than if the real creatures were there themselves.

The Butterfly Lion, Richmond Theatre, Mon 4 - Sat 9 November, Box office 0844 871 7651.