The lion king of Kabul

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MARY BRENNAN September 21 2006

It started with a newspaper story about the death of Marjan, the legendary lion in Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan. Actor and director Gill Robertson read it, was moved and intrigued, then got on with the hectic daily business behind Catherine Wheels, one of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre companies.

That was early 2002 – but Marjan’s story was like an itch that demanded to be scratched. It lodged in Robertson’s memory to the point where she found herself clicking ‘search’ on the computer and discovering more about this beleaguered beast and the appalling circumstances that had made him a talismanic hero in Kabul and beyond. The more she read, the more her instincts told her, “This is an amazing story.” And what do sussed and successful theatre directors do with amazing stories? Make them into stage plays – only most get others to do the actual graft of performing.

Not Robertson. From now until early November she will be on the road, roaring up a storm in a solo show called The Lion of Kabul that’s aimed at children aged eight to 12.

In it, she is Marjan. And it takes more than just pinning on a tail to get into character. “Actually, I could do with a leg transplant,” she says, laughing. “I’m on my haunches a lot, then up and down a lot – I’m telling the story as well as being in it – and both legs are really aching. And yes, I do roar. I have this massive roar in the middle of the show; the kids absolutely love that. So as well as having to do a really good physical warm-up beforehand, I have to do a vocal warm-up as well.

“But I’m loving it, really. There are moments during the show when I’ve had a shivery feeling … a feeling that Marjan’s story really is special and exciting. Just a really good story that’s worth telling.”

Telling it has, however, proved one of the most ambitious projects Catherine Wheels has faced. Last November, with the encouragement of the National Theatre of Scotland, the company boldly went site-specific with Home: East Lothian. In it, a walk in the squelchy, spooky woods after dark gave a whole new feel to the story of Hansel and Gretel – and ensured no-one was left unaware of how chilling it is to be homeless, unwanted, lost and vulnerable to sweet-talking strangers. It was a remarkable achievement, which brought Robertson and Catherine Wheels the cachet of Best Children’s Show 2006 at the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS).

Home will return next year, but meanwhile there’s a tent to put up … and take down … and put up again – in the name of Marjan. “It started off with us thinking, “How do you encourage an audience to feel they’re somewhere else, where the culture is very different?” says Robertson. “And a tent seemed an ideal way to transform the space, create a different world,” she explains.

Everywhere the tour goes – from Paisley to Peebles, Kilmarnock to Falkirk – the tent will go on ahead. “It takes a whole day, really, to put everything together, because it is complicated. But you just have to grip your knickers and get on with it. The technical team construct a black box, then erect the tent inside. Then we fit around 80 kids inside that.”

Inside, four projectors surround the audience with animations, images and newsreel footage as a backdrop to Marjan’s story. “When I started working on it with the writer Nicola McCartney, there was this part of it about Marjan’s friend – a wee girl, Sonia – but other plays have looked at a wee girl experiencing war.

“We wanted a different perspective. We wanted audiences to connect with what was happening – the civil war, the bombings, the years of suffering and hardship – from where Marjan was: stuck in a zoo, in a cage, unable to escape, with no choices. At the mercy of people.”

She swiftly sketches in the key points in Marjan’s fascinating life. There’s the moment when a bored Taliban soldier jumped into Marjan’s cage – provoked, the lion mauled him and the soldier died. There’s the subsequent reprisal when a grenade was lobbed into Marjan’s cage, leaving the ageing lion blinded, lame and with his jaw shattered. And there’s Marjan’s survival, which sees the lion assume emblematic status within war-torn Kabul and become a living metaphor for dignity, resilience and hope. His death from old age, weeks after the US bombings had ushered in an era of possible improvements, underlined his mythic image.

Those grim times – many other zoo animals were eaten by the starving residents of Kabul – suggest a bleak script. “Well the end is bleak, but in an uplifting way,” says Robertson.

“But there’s also a lot of comedy, because we make it Marjan’s journey from being a playful cub, through finding his roar and then surviving all the upheavals in Afghanistan and how they affected the zoo.

“And being Nicola, it’s also quite poetic in how it uses language – we wanted Marjan to have a different way of speaking that reflected his experience. So I’ll say, ‘Do you smell that noise?’ and the kids will laugh, but then they’ll start to understand that he’s an animal and he senses things differently.”

While youngsters across Scotland enter Marjan’s life, Catherine Wheels are preparing to enter Broadway with another production, their staging of Nicola McCartney’s Lifeboat.

“We all go over in March,” says Robertson. “But we can’t stay around for the whole run, because we have to come back and do Home, but indoors this time – which will be a bit of a challenge, especially for Karen [Tennent, whose previous settings won the 2006 CATS for Best Design].

“Oh, and there’s Martha [another Catherine Wheels production] at the Tron over Christmas – yes, the goose is back! And I’m working on a new show, A Town Called Elsewhere, that tours round schools in January.”

As she rushes off for another feedback preview of The Lion of Kabul, it’s hard to imagine how Gill Robertson ever found the time to read that newspaper article in the first place.

The Lion of Kabul is at Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, until Saturday, then touring.

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