Exlar actuators used to power Dragon wings in Shrek the Musical.
Dreamworks Theatricals and Neal Street Productions’ Shrek the Musical.
Dreamworks Theatricals and Neal Street Productions’ Shrek the Musical has finally arrived in the West End at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, following its opening on Broadway and an ongoing tour of America. But like all fairy stories, the details change with the telling and the English version is, well, just that little more English than the original.
Shrek the Musical leads us through forests from Shrek’s swamp to Lord Farquaad’s castle at Duloc, to Fiona’s Dragon guarded tower and on to the court and cathedral, by a Scottish ogre and a plethora of fairy story characters. The witty script weaves snippets of fairy stories and pastiches of West End musicals into the storyline with irreverence and a lot of wind!
Largely based on the US touring production, yet with much of the visual language of the Broadway production, the show’s design draws from both versions, with some additional elements and embellishments introduced to make the UK production a little more ‘West End’.
Associate designer, Tim McQuillen-Wright, explains: “(Designer) Tim Hatley translated William Steig’s book illustrations into the Broadway ‘language’ which often referenced, but did not copy, the film. We have pushed this further by placing more emphasis on its storybook origins.
“We have explored the style of pop-up books to create brightly coloured, larger-than-life scenes which jump out at the audience as the pages are turned. This is the visual hook off which the whole design hangs. The result feels like a single design with multiple layers, like the pages of a book. There is a new discovery with every turn.”
No longer subject to the constraints of touring, some new elements have been introduced or expanded upon; these include a hydraulic rope bridge which rises out of the stage carrying Shrek and Donkey with it, a tracking element added to the flown LED wall, and a streamlined ‘levitation’ of Fiona as she is transformed into an ogress. There is a greater degree of integrated automation control and some refined video work. Most notable of all, however, is the addition of a flying Dragon which circumnavigates the auditorium above the heads of the audience.
The onstage Dragon, enamoured of Donkey, is the 22ft (6.7m) long creation of Michael Curry Design of Oregon. Designed for lightness, the body is constructed of fabric formed around hoops to hold the shape. The wings are of carbon fibre and aluminium and the head a light-weight carbon fibre complete with illuminated eyes and fluttering eyelashes. She weighs 60lb/27kg and is operated by four (very fit) puppeteers who run their socks off to create her fluid movements around the stage.
By contrast the flying Dragon is of quite different construction with the emphasis on overhead safety requirements rather than lightness. A smaller-scale version of the stage Dragon, measuring 14ft/4.2m, weighing 130lb/60kg including onboard electronics, was created by MCD around a sturdy, welded steel frame. This was clad in a lightweight foam to form the body with a carbon fibre head which allowed MCD to retain the facial details that capture her all-important personality. She descends via a circuitous route at up to 4.5m per second to within 30cm of the MD, flapping her wings as she goes, before joyfully incinerating Lord Farquaad on the altar with the help of a boosted Look Solutions Tiny Fogger in her mouth (courtesy of Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd).
Scott Fisher of Fisher Technical Services was brought in to devise the best means of achieving her flight. The Dragon is suspended from six FTSI 515 winches which are positioned on a front-of-house crawl truss installed by Unusual Rigging. A steel post with extra bracings and a variable speed chainhoist were installed in the chandelier void to give the Dragon a third point of travel whilst protecting the fabric of the listed building. The FTSI winches and associated rigging hardware were installed by Gavin Wetherall and his team of riggers from Flywire TRP.
Integrated Drive Electronics
The Dragon is attached to the winches by an intricate system of lines installed by FTSI’s Jim Love and Jeremy Day. Six lines of Technora synthetic rope, which has a higher breaking strength than steel, give control over six degrees of freedom, diverting her left and right, up and down and allowing her to roll left and right and pitch and yaw. The rigidity of the rig and its hexopod geometry provide enough stability for the dragon’s internal rotation mechanism to rotate accurately, providing a smooth, dynamic flight. Finally, internal Exlar Tritex actuators deploy the wings.