It’s not easy keeping a giant lion under wraps. For the last few weeks the rehearsal rooms of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds have been home to an entire menagerie of animals. There’s a beaver, a few fish and a whole load of mice, but it’s that lion which has taken up the most man hours. “Yes that’s Aslan,” says Craig Leo, who is the puppet director on the theatre’s Christmas show, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “We know that everyone in the audience will be waiting to see how we have brought him to life. I won’t lie, there have been a lot of sleepless nights, but I think we have got there.
“Everyone who has read CS Lewis or who has seen one of the films or TV adaptations has an image of how Aslan should look or move. It is a different challenge on stage, but I hope that the first time he moves you will hear that gasp of excitement which tells you everything is OK.”
When we meet, a full dress rehearsal is still some way off and Aslan is devoid of his luxurious mane. Iain Johnstone, the actor who will work the puppet, has thus far been working with little more than giant skeleton. However, even in its most basic state it has a touch of War Horse about it, which should probably come as no surprise given Leo was one of the original team who turned Michael Morpurgo’s First World War tale into the most talked about stage production of 2007.
Ten years on the touring production is still going strong – the latest incarnation is due to arrive at Bradford Alhambra in the New Year – and Leo, who trained as a trapeze artist and stilt walker back in his native South Africa before moving into puppetry, admits that it was a bit of a game changer.
“Eastern Europe has a really strong history of puppetry but elsewhere it fell out of fashion and ended up being confined to children’s theatre,” he says. “Before War Horse if you had mentioned puppets over here, most people would have thought of Punch and Judy. War Horse did change people’s attitudes. They saw just what was possible and suddenly it was OK to have puppets in what was essentially an adult production.”
Along with Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, War Horse was a huge commercial hit for the National Theatre and with the axe falling on many funding streams it’s a formula other theatres would love to repeat.
“The key was time,” says Leo, who at the time was a member of the renowned Handspring Puppet Company. “That’s a luxury so many other productions don’t have, but the pressure was off and we were really allowed to experiment.
“It was devised in a small room and we had time to see what worked, what didn’t. By the time we got to the final version we had refined every scene and distilled the real heart of the story. I remember, before press night the director gathered us all together and said: ‘Whatever you do, don’t read the reviews.’ It wasn’t that there was a fear they were going to be bad, more that they wanted us as a company to be confident in our work.
“I have worked in this business long enough to know that you can’t please everyone and, to be honest, there are always things I think I would like to tweak and change, but with War Horse we did know that we had created something special.”
Leo says it has been much the same feeling backstage at The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Directed by Sally Cookson, whose adaptation of Jane Eyre was also a big hit for the National Theatre, her approach is a brave one.
Most of those at the helm of a big Christmas show, which can make or break a theatre’s annual accounts, arrive with a fully formed script and a complete vision of how they want the production to look. Not Cookson, however. Instead she arrived with a blank canvas and a desire to collaborate.
“It’s a wonderful way to work, scary but wonderful,” says Leo, who began working with Sally on the puppet designs three months before rehearsals proper started. “I remember the first day I met the cast. For Aslan, all I had were a few duvets stitched together and some brown paper, but you really don’t need much to get started.
“If you don’t get Aslan right, the show won’t work and those early sessions were all about pinpointing what we needed in terms of movement. He has to be big, he has to occupy the space.”
And added challenge came with the fact that the show will be performed in the round so the design had to work through 360 degrees.
“It does create a richness to a production, which I love but when you know that the audience have every angle covered everyone has to work a lot harder. The research and development time has been crucial,” adds Leo.
“With CS Lewis there are obviously a lot of religious overtones to all of the books in the series. We wanted to stay away from that, but at the same time I didn’t just want to give the audience the kind of lion that you might find in Kruger National Park.
“He is more ancient than that, more not quite of this world, so I have really mined into Middle Eastern history. Lions are a recurring theme in the architecture of that part of the world and that discovery really proved key.”
Much of the puppetry magic happens in the prop room. Tucked away back stage, it’s where Mark Parrett brings Leo’s ideas to life. A few weeks before opening night, a row of blind mice still need their eyes stitching in and the next job is to make Father Christmas and a herd of reindeer.
“We work with a material not unlike the floats you use in swimming pools which are really ease to carve,” says Parrett attaching a jaw onto a potentially nightmare-inducing skull. “It means you can work quickly, which on a production as big as this is key.
“I haven’t worked with Craig before, but it’s been a really lovely experience. In fact, the whole thing has been a joy, so much so I am planning to move up here in the New Year.”
Parrett worked with Cookson on Cloudland, based on John Burningham’s story of a young boy who finds himself walking among the clouds after slipping off a mountain, and as a performer himself it has been something of a match made in heaven.
“Often on jobs you get a full brief before you start and are basically told to go away and make stuff,” he says. “This has been a much more collaborative process. I have been into rehearsals, which has been great as it means I can see what Craig and Sally are trying to achieve and how the various puppets work as part of the whole.”
The show has just opened and with the hard work done, all Leo needed to do was stock up on tissues.
“I am generally an emotional wreck on opening night. I weep uncontrollably, it’s always such a massive release.”
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until January 27. 0113 213 7700, wyp.org.uk