Lion Lion – Play, Pie & Pint
**** (4 stars)
This was “Life with the Lions”, the ugly version… Joy and George Adamson were pioneers in wild cat conservation, especially lions. Joy is probably best-remembered for her books about the lion cub, Elsa, and Elsa’s cubs – Born Free, Living Free, and Forever Free – and the film Born Free, all of which tend to make the whole thing sound terribly romantic and alluring. But was this the case?
Sue Glover’s play lifts the lid on life behind the picture-perfect façade, giving us a portrait of an arrogant woman more concerned for her animals than for her husband or the native servants who make her life in Kenya possible. It’s colonialism at its worst coupled with the supreme self-confidence that knows I am right and everyone else is wrong: but without that arrogance and self-belief, would Joy have achieved what she did? And was what she achieved worth the price paid?
It was extremely uncomfortable to be sitting so close to the action, an unwilling witness to the raging emotions unleashed before us. Joy’s confident persona in front of the press cameras as she promoted Born Free dissolved into melodramatic hysteria as she furiously berated George for failing to deal swiftly enough with Elsa’s illness and thus prevent her death, talking of the lion in overblown terms – “we had a mystical relationship” / “she was my soul-mate”: the sort of language one might associate with the death of a partner, but not of an animal, however beloved.
Vitriol was aimed at the man of whom she had previously spoken so glowingly, the desired prey of her long-term hunt – was it the glamour of his reputation that attracted her? Certainly the gloss wore off, she had affairs and spent much of their married life living elsewhere: but did she ever love a human being the way she loved the big cats, and especially Elsa? For both herself and George losing Elsa seemed to be the great tragedy that ruined their relationship rather than bringing them closer together…but would Joy have tired of Elsa had she lived, just as she tired of George? Elsa was replaced by other lion cubs, then by a young female cheetah and finally an African leopardess cub, just as George was replaced by various nameless men and the oh-so-wonderfully urbane and sophisticated publisher, ‘Billy’ Collins.
As the play progressed, however, it became clear that Elsa was indeed the Beloved, who could do no wrong, and to whom Joy talked constantly, updating her on what was going on, and confiding details of her past life that Joy had revealed to no-one else. These went some way to explaining her attitude towards everyone else – you can’t trust anyone, they will betray you and let you down, disappear and hurt you, so trust no-one and never display fear. She was harsh and unforgiving towards anyone who didn’t act as she felt they should, [“Nobody ever thinks about me”…], careless of her husband and his feelings and oblivious to the fact that the servants who made her life and work possible were human beings to be treated with kindness and respect.
Her egocentric view of things contrasted with that of her long-suffering husband, who tried to point out to her the wisdom of realising that the two of them were at best tolerated in Kenya for the tourist income they brought to the country, and at worst hated by the local villagers whose land had been taken away to make a reserve for the lions, their traditional enemy. Her heartless treatment of their ‘boy’ Makedde is the final straw: his daily walk with a gun between her and the danger from her latest love, the leopard Penny, his devoted service to her and George were all as nothing because of his selfishness in accidentally scalding his leg and needing treatment at the Mission “leaving me alone, like everyone else does”…
The only times Joy seemed warm and loving were when she was talking to Elsa or about her latest loves, human or animal: she completely ignored any pain George might have been feeling, both for the loss of Elsa and later when he had to shoot his beloved Boy, another lion who’d been rescued, and whose death involved both George and Makedde in an interrogation which revealed that Boy had attacked several other people before killing the servant Stanley. Makedde helplessly watched George mourning Boy while seemingly oblivious to the death of Stanley, a twenty-eight-year-old orphan, whose body would be taken from police custody and dumped in a common grave, while Boy’s grave would be visited as regularly as Elsa’s was…
It’s a chilling portrait of inhumanity and intolerance, mercilessly observed and brilliantly acted by Selina Boyack, Keith Fleming and Nick Ikunda, whose servitude and humility enraged me and made intelligible the hatred of those Kenyans who were attacking white tourists and trying to take back land they felt was rightfully theirs.
It was not a comfortable play to watch: how true it is I don’t know: but the performances were very good and the audience greatly appreciative.
Lion Lion – Play, Pie & Pint, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ends Sat 20th April for tickets go to: https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/ppp-lion-lion