Friday, 7 January 2011

Panto: The art of retelling a great story

At this time of year, you sometimes have to watch when someone cries out “He’s behind you!” Even more so if you’re sitting in the front row of a theatre audience. We’re just past half way in the annual pantomime season, and it is hard to grasp that this is a particularly British art form that most other countries don’t understand.

Very few arts have been developed within Britain and this form of theatre is one of them. Over the festive period I’ve seen two pantos in theatres and a handful on television. But there is a perception that they are low brow and hackneyed. I think this view is unfair and there is plenty of life in this annual festival of fun.

The one advantage of the Pantomime is the elasticity of its genre. It encompasses everything from a tightly produced small ensemble cast to a largely improvised set and everything in between. To understand this a little further you need to understand the origins of panto.

The word Pantomime originally comes from ancient Greece but there it refers to a performance that “imitates all” as the words suggest. Even in English theatre history, the term originally referred to a low form of opera that imitated the real thing. However, the low opera did tend to retell familiar stories and it is this retelling that is important.

There has been a tradition of retelling stories over generations in Britain. Think of the Mummers’ plays or the Chaucerian idea of people sharing stories for entertainment. There isn’t just one version of Cinderella, its plot or even its characters. Probably the original pantomime, the story is a European legend that existed for hundreds of years before the pantomime was invented.
I imagine the 1870 Drury Lane version of Cinderella, possibly the first real panto, would be quite different to “Cinderella Rocks”, a local youth theatre group production being performed in Leeds this year.

The idea of a small footed beauty is believed to have its origins in China where women used to fold their toes back with bandages to give the impression of smaller feet. The Disney version has no Dandini and no Buttons. There are Cinderella ballets, Operas, books and films which are distinctly not Panto. It’s even believed that the “glass slipper” is a mistranslation of “the shoe of fun” – a slipper that allows the wearer to dance.

It is the retelling in a new form every year that makes it relevant to a new audience, evolving over the decades to reach new audiences since its creation in the nineteenth century. What makes the pantomime is a number of common features which can be overlaid on many a story, but even some of these common features can be absent. Aladdin at the West Yorkshire Playhouse had no cross dressing but it did have a dame.

The modern construct of the pantomime was heavily influenced by the musical hall. Many vaudevillians saw the panto as good seasonal work. Rather than two or three acts, the pantomime tends to run several varying scenes or skits together allowing for comedians, singers, dancers and magicians to do there “turn” even if it adds nothing to the story. A good pantomime is also interactive involving the audience and responding to the heckle.

It is also a form of art where the amateur production can be as good, if not better, than the professional production with the big cast. With few rules, the strength of the Pantomime relies on the satire, the gag writing and the relationship with the audience. Special effects can help a production but aren’t the heart of the performance. The panto will only die if it stays the same. We are no longer in the variety hall era and inspiration should come from the current. It should go back to the roots of imitating all whilst holding on to a good yarn that has survived the test of time.

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