Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Brief History in Pantomime

Picture courtesy of Act One Productions

       The theatre is now full. The audience, made up of children, parents, grandparents, friends and schoolmates, are full of anticipation, chattering excitedly amid rustling sweetie papers and the restless shuffling of feet. Suddenly, the music begins; everyone focuses on the stage as the lights in the auditorium grow dim. A strange woman appears wearing bizarre clothes in garish colours, her face heavily painted with slashes of crimson lipstick, circles of rouge and thick giraffe-length eyelashes. This grotesque vision is topped by a gravity-defying wig in colours you’d never find at your average hairdressers. Then, as if her presence hasn’t already been noticed, she calls to the audience in a very loud, very raucous and suspiciously deep voice!
       Welcome to Pantomime – one of the world’s oldest, most enduring theatrical experiences. Like any dramatic performance, pantomime has its roots in ancient Greek amphitheatre where tragedy, satire and even knockabout farces were based on strong moral themes by Aesop, Virgil and other poets and writers.
       Pantomime - ‘Pan’ [Greek word for ‘All’] and ‘Mimos’ [Greek for  ‘Imitate’) -does exactly what the word means. Whether mimed silently or outrageously noisy and over-the-top, it mimics people we’ve all encountered in real-life. Think of Norris from Coronation Street, or Eastender’s Peggy Mitchell and Dirty Den – like pantomime, no matter how exaggerated soap opera characters may be, they all have traits from people we recognise. 
       The Romans were the first to see the enormous potential of comedy which, along with “bread and circuses”, could be used to appease the masses. Larger-than-life roles included thinly disguised caricatures of oppressive Emperors, impudent servants and valiant heroes. And let’s not forget the love interest - beautiful princesses who were always played by men, as women were forbidden to perform, a tradition maintained to this day (most notably by the Pantomime Dame). Unfortunately, Roman pantomimes were not suitable for children, due to their sexual innuendo and gory violence.
       In time, Comedia dell Arte was born, a highly physical, seemingly anarchic form of Italian comedy in which all the protagonists wore masks. While bringing stock characters up to date, this new genre continued to use the same elements, but with more lavish costumes, becoming closer to traditional pantomimes of the present day. (Mr Burns from the Simpsons is actually moulded on Pantalone, as are many of today’s favourite film and TV villains.)*
       Ancient myths, fables and legends later gave way to a rich seam of tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Anderson and even Shakespeare who, when not killing off his entire cast in tragedies such as Hamlet and Lear, no doubt enjoyed a little light relief with comedies like Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Midsummer Night’s Dream, which could be extremely rambunctious and surreal. At the same time, English Mummers’ Plays came into their own, touring the country and establishing the traditions of modern pantomime. 
       Actors, comedians, singers and other entertainers look forward to a good 'run' over the winter; beginning in December, many pantos can last well into February, providing a welcome antidote to post-Christmas blues and a touch of magic for the kids. OH YES THEY DO!

1 comment: