When comparing Tolkien to Lewis, Lewis wins in the theatrical department. Every year, around the world, theater groups are tackling The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, creating different interpretations of the same text by their choices of costume, casting, lighting and sets. I can’t see anyone staging The Fellowship of the Ring the same way, even if the trustees of the books would let them. Lewis has the flexibility of being so out-there with his elements of fantasy that audiences have no choice than to be accepting of the stage magic simulating them, from a wardrobe that turns into a snowy forest to a giant talking lion.
The role of Aslan, of course, calls for a larger-than-life, grandiose presence. But how do you simulate a thousand-pound lion deity?
There are only two choices: puppetry, or a costume that kinda resembles a lion deity, like how the dancers in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Cats resembled cats.
The BBC version made in 1988 had a decent Aslan puppet. He didn’t move much, but the story was structured so he didn’t have to. I’ve gotta say the head looks frozen-faced here even in a still, though the voice actor did a fine job.
By the time the Disney movies came around CGI had reached the point where a lifelike lion was possible on the screen. But you can’t do CGI on stage, and for a theatrical run it would be too expensive to do a realistic lion that wouldn’t have moved much anyway. So Aslan became super-stylized, which ties into the major suspension of belief issues of staging Narnia anyway.
This Aslan is operated by performers who likely have the toughest job in the show. Like bunraku puppeteers they wear black, and while they are partly hidden by Aslan’s body the illusion is not total by necessity. The designer created a big cat that is imposing and primal, calling to mind a rough metal sculpture. No idea what scene this is though. That’s Peter or Edmund at the left with a Narnian shield, and the woman may be the White Witch, but what is she doing with Aslan’s head?
Another bunraku puppet Aslan, who is missing his legs for some reason. That, along with the exposed ribs, make him look like’s he’s been partially eaten by vultures before his resurrection.
This Aslan required three puppeteers, being almost elephant-sized! But that’s OK, he wasn’t all one unit, but a set of three: head, forequarters, and hindquarters working in close conjunction.
For theater companies with deep pockets, remote-controlled animatronics are likely to be used.
This one has three operators as well, two for the body and one for the head and mouth. The stylization works as the set itself is stylized: the backdrops are made to look like paper trees and buildings cut from the pages of the book.
One disadvantage of an oversized lion puppet is its weight, which is why the designer of this production made an Aslan of lightweight fabric stretched over a wire frame. Downside: his ankles look broken.
Another wire frame Aslan, but instead of nylon fabric, his hide and mane are made of book covers. Not only The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe itself, but the books named in Tumnus’s library and other children’s classics like The Secret Garden.
An Aslan made of a gauzy fabric, which must have given him an ethereal look under the lights. Sensibly, he has wheels to get around.
Then there’s this one, built for a high school production, which is too easy to make fun of, so I won’t.
The oddest production of The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe I’ve come across is this avant-garde one from Poland, which features a womblike, minimalist white set with a curtain cocoon that can drop down from above. Aslan looks like he’s made out of translucent plastic, operated by droogs. Lighting is used to convey emotion shifts and scene changes.
The woman at the center cupping her ear might be the White Witch, and that might be Edmund at the back with his dwarf captor. But who’s the elven beauty at Aslan’s side?
This might be the master storyteller who narrates the tale. But who is the faceless, gold-suited man behind her?
This might be the Witch Witch with an electrified neon hoop skirt as she is torturing Edmund, who looks to be doing a break dance on the floor. Maybe the black-clad figures are the witch’s wolves? Or her statues? Who knows. Those Poles, always a crazy bunch.