“Every morning as part of rehearsals we’d have half an hour of movement, trying to embody a lion which was really difficult…“
The Lion King is one of the most beloved Disney films there is.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, its adaptation to the stage was hotly anticipated and continues to be one of the West End’s most popular shows. Shaun Escoffery and George Esprey – Mufasa and Scar – are celebrating fifteen years in the cast, making them the longest serving actors in any production of The Lion King! Bread and Butter PR kindly shared an interview with the actors, providing some insight and anecdotes into these fantastic roles, in such a brilliant show.
Interview by Sophia A Jackson | Afridiziak Theatre News
Let’s go back to your formative years. Can you share some of your earliest memories of going to the theatre and who you went with?
Shaun Escoffery: I actually never went to the theatre. I think I went to a few pantos when I was a kid at school but I wasn’t really a theatre-goer. The first time I started properly going to the theatre was when I was in it.
George Asprey: My grandmother was determined that I was going to love theatre. She used to take me to the theatre all the time and to the most bizarre things. She took me to see this play about Lenin and I was about 8-years-old. And that was probably why I never wanted to be an actor when I was younger!
What was the moment when you realised you’d caught the acting bug?
Shaun: I was young and we were doing a performance in junior school, I joined the choir and they asked me to do a solo. Afterwards, in my school report, they mentioned that I should be encouraged to go into the arts and that’s when I got the bug. I indirectly pursued it as a dream, I did it on the side because my family were very academic and were encouraging me to get into architecture which I was studying at Barking College. They had a fantastic performing arts department and that’s where I met people like Idris Elba. I was always singing and they’d ask me why I was doing architecture instead of performing arts. So, I finished the architecture course and went straight into performing arts and that’s after listening to them. And here I am!
George: My mum and dad used to do amateur dramatics for the Hammersmith Operatic Society and in one production of Carmen, I was drummed in to play one of the little street urchins with my cousin. There were a lot of other school boys in the play and they were really mean – I remember it was my birthday and they gave me the bumps quite aggressively – so I think that actually put me off being an actor once again!
It’s an incredible achievement to be the longest serving actors in the roles of Mufasa and Scar in any production of The Lion King. How does that accolade feel?
George: Slightly surreal. It’s not a case of celebrating longevity because you only ever take one song at a time. It’s more like an accumulation because you’re only ever as good as your last show. We have no given right to play Scar and Mufasa so we have to be as good as what’s out there. It’s taking it one show at a time and now all of a sudden we’ve had fifteen years of the show. What’s so wonderful about our friendship and partnership on stage – and more importantly, off stage – is that we hold each other accountable as actors, but also as men, fathers, husbands. We are constantly striving to be better in every aspect of ourselves. I think that translates to our performances.
Shaun: It’s a wonderful honour. I look back at myself and my partner in crime George with fondness and gratitude. We never dreamed we’d be doing this show for fifteen years. I feel extremely lucky to be able to do something we love with consistency. We are both aware of the huge responsibility that we have.
George: We’re both very conscious that we are performing in the biggest musical worldwide, playing two of the most important roles in the most iconic show. There are so many people who have their first ever experience of theatre at The Lion King. If we can engender a love of theatre in those people, then you’re guaranteeing the next generation of theatre goers. Every night we think about that person who has been thinking ‘how many sleeps until The Lion King’. It’s up to us not to fall back on fifteen years of performance but to be in that moment – present and fresh for the audience.
I think it would be fair to say, you are Lion King veterans. Fifteen years is a long time in any job; how do you keep it interesting and varied. How easy is it to see every performance as the first time?
Shaun: When you’ve been playing a role for a number of years like we have, you can go back and readdress things and try something different. We have a beautiful burden playing these characters, and people spend money to come and see the show. They don’t care that we’ve done five shows that week – this is their first time and we always keep that at the forefront of our minds. We have a standard of professionalism that we take seriously. But we’re always trying to renew and find different aspects of the characters.
George: There’s freedom within knowing a character so well and having that trust between us on stage. We only have two scenes together but that first scene sets up the whole show and the premise for the rest of the evening. Also, having the freedom of knowing the character so well, it’s easy to change little things and nuances. Occasionally, you’ll come up with something after fifteen years and ask yourself, why it’s taken all this time to explore that.
What are the advantages of having worked together for fifteen years? I imagine if you hated each other – that would be a bit of a nightmare and one of you would have left by now.
George: It might make the antagonism between us even more realistic! I always tell people that I have four sisters and I always wanted a brother, I never realised that it would turn out to be this 6ft brute from east London. That’s how close we are. Off stage, we train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu together – we’ve done so for over ten years now – we even do it between shows. Shaun’s a black belt, I’m a brown belt. There’s that spirit of competition between us.
Shaun: We’ve been very close for fifteen years, he’s my best friend. If things ever go wrong in our scenes, we have each others’ backs. Once my mask went flying across the stage. I’m looking at George, George is looking at me, and George just casually walked over and picked up my mask and gave it back to me, and we carried on. It’s about that level of trust on stage.
George: Because we know the roles and each other so well, if something does go wrong, nothing phases us. We’re able to recover the moment, maybe better than people who don’t know each other.
I’d LOVE to hear some of your fondest memories from the past 15 years of playing alongside each other in the Lion King… apart from masks flying across the stage.
George: Seeing Shaun again after COVID. That was a hug! During lockdown, we went from literally spending more time with each other than we do with our wives and children, to not seeing each other for almost a year and a half. We talked every day on WhatsApp but physically seeing him again for the first time was a huge moment.
Shaun: Yes, that was really emotional for everyone. George and I have discussed many times that when you’re sharing a stage with somebody it’s an intimate thing, it’s hard to describe. Once we got together and saw everyone again for the first time after that long, it was spiritual, emotional, it was relief, gratitude – it was all of these things. You realise just how important your fellow colleagues are, and how important theatre is to us and the people coming to see the show. We forget the impact that it has on people.
George: That first show back was extraordinary. The bond created between those on stage and those in the auditorium was just immense. And it was a physical manifestation of reality coming back to normal.
How did you approach the process of learning to move like a lion in those early years?
Shaun: With great difficulty. It was totally alien!
George: The movement is based on Balinese and Javanese dance. Every morning as part of rehearsals we’d have half an hour of movement, trying to embody a lion which was really difficult. Andile Gumbi who played Simba in South Africa and Australia came in to help us and it was just extraordinary learning from him, it really helped us to connect the movement with the piece in an authentic way. It was difficult to begin with but the more you do it, the more you understand. You keep going and eventually everything is just natural and becomes as one. People say ‘oh fifteen years, aren’t you bored of it?’, but it’s fifteen years of discovery, fifteen years of being with my best mate and friendship. It’s so much more than just a job or just a show.
What’s your favourite song from The Lion King in terms of the one that has the most sentimental value?
Shaun: Circle of Life, every time.
George: They Live in You which Shaun sings, it’s extraordinary. And I have to say Be Prepared.
Thanks to Bread and Butter PR for sharing the interview. If you haven’t yet seen Disney’s The Lion King, I highly recommend as it really is spectacular!