Sunday, 17 January 2016

Pantomime for Broadway?




       Strange.  I’ve always thought of pantomime as a peculiarly British tradition - as unique to our ‘green and pleasant land’ as the Union Jack, jellied eels, bacon and egg, strongly brewed tea and Marmite.
       Yet every blog I write about panto gets more views from the States than from dear old old Blighty. Maybe the Brits take this ancient mummery for granted. After all, it’s been going strong since Roman times when, along with bread and circuses, it kept the populace pliant and less likely to revolt over the dire state of the nation.
       Similarly, in our day a good pantomime provides a welcome distraction from the miserable winter weather, the endless recession and the absolute fortunes spent on Christmas presents which nobody wants. But whatever is happening in the world, there’s one thing we can count on; from November to February pantomimes will be playing at almost every UK theatre. 
       What is it that makes pantomime so special, so beloved of children of all ages? Distinguished Shakespearean actor, Sir Ian MacKellen (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) explains: “Pantomime has everything theatrical: song, dance, verse, slapstick, soliloquy, audience participation, spectacle, cross-dressing and a good plot, strong on morality and romance. What more could you want for a family outing? I believe there’s more pure theatre in a pantomime than you get in Shakespeare, and if it works, it’s unforgettable.”
       Audience participation is one of panto’s most endearing aspects, with the cast positively encouraging audiences to shout, sing, heckle, boo and cheer! The result may seem anarchic, yet there’s a strong discipline involved – certain rules which unite both cast and audience, creating unity from mayhem!
       Now I’m going to say something really contentious: If you’ve only ever seen a pantomime in the West End, you’ve probably never seen panto! Unfortunately, the bigger the show, the more likely it is to be a vehicle for TV reality and soap stars, retired politicians, pop singers and blue comedians (see my previous blog: http://jacybrean.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/is-panto-for-children-anymore.html) It may have plenty of glitz and glamour, but very little authenticity. 
       


           For pantomime in its purest form, Act One Panto, a small touring theatre which specialises in the genre, comes as close as it gets to the strolling players of old, featuring mime, songs, dance, acrobatics and comedy – all incorporated into the plot.  Artistic Director Jule Watson has studied pantomime in depth and, while adding her innovative flair into the mix with a contemporary slant, she believes firmly in keeping its traditional core intact. “Before you can break a rule, you first have to keep a rule” is Jule’s maxim.
       Creating a pantomime is all very democratic. Soon after the current season’s productions go on tour, Jule consults with her cast and crew, inviting suggestions for the following year’s offerings. Once the theme has been decided, she’ll telephone or email me to commission a script.
       I then come up with a general outline for Jule to consider, at the same time picking the brains of family, friends and colleagues for jokes or funny anecdotes. (The best, by the way, invariably come from youngsters!) These are all scribbled in my notebook, ready for inclusion where appropriate, along with ideas of my own and any snippets I pick when out and about.
     Then I think about it. And think about it. And think about it some more....until finally, I get down to the actual writing, which can be within a relatively short time, provided the ideas are forming and the dialogue flows.
       Then it’s over to Jule who’ll consider the physical aspects of the show, such as visual gags and special effects. For Alice in Pantoland, we had the comedy duo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, ‘galloping’ Monty Python-style around the auditorium on pretend horses. For Follow the Yellow Brick Road, staged the following year, Jule was even more ambitious – incorporating pogo sticks and unicycles!
       

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Eternal youth. Could humans stay young forever?

Forget the Botox, cancel your facelift – according to researchers at Nottingham University, the Fountain of Youth may lie with the humble flatworm.

From just one member of this innocuous species, a team led by Molecular Biologist DrAziz Aboobaker have created over 20,000 worms which, when divided, simply grow back again - i.e. the head bit grows another tail while the tail portion grows a replacement head, producing two worms for the price of one. And the more they are cut up, the more parts there are to regenerate into complete new worms, each identical to the first, with bodies and organs that never seem to deteriorate.

As a result of his research, Molecular Biologist Dr Aziz Aboobaker believes flatworms are immortal thanks to telomeres which keep their cells dividing and renewing perpetually, unlike humans.

The Myths

The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Currently, ageing is a remorseless, unrelenting and inevitable process from which nobody seems able to escape. Yet finding a cure for this condition, maybe even for death itself, has been the ultimate goal for humans since time began. 

In ancient China, for example, Taoist priests led people to neglect their labour to search for “the elixir of life” or “fountain of youth”. Alchemists in medieval Europe and Arabia used noxious ingredients such as arsenic, sulphur and mercury to create their supposed life-preserving potions - though how long anyone actually lived after taking them is anybody’s guess!

One African legend is that God send a chameleon to deliver immortality to mankind, but it moved so slowly that another lizard got there first and persuaded people to accept a message of death instead.

As far back as the 4th century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle attempted to explain just why we die, concluding that life hinged on the human body’s ability to balance heat and cold, observing: “It is always to some lack of heat that death is due.” Another philosopher, Plato, taught that man has an immortal soul that survives the death of the body.

Today, little has changed and it isn’t just women who yearn to turn back the clock, nor is it just the rich who pay handsomely to have their bodies frozen via cyronics, hoping for a revival once a cure for their terminal condition has been discovered. Every day, dubious and sometimes highly unethical therapies are being lined up as the only way to achieve that everlastingly flawless complexion and perfectly toned muscles. One stomach-churning report by a national newspaper exposed the use of desiccated foetuses in tablet form which are thought to preserve youth.

Are ageing and death natural?

For many people, the idea of living forever seems too far-fetched, even absurd. But is it? If we were only meant to live for just three score years and ten (or longer if we have exceptional genes), why do we fear death so much? Why do people undergo painful and unpleasant treatment to defeat life-threatening disease, or grieve so much when a loved one dies? And, if old age is as natural as we’re led to believe, why do so many invest heavily in creams, fillers, and cosmetic surgery to hold back the years? 

This may come as a shock to many, but the truth is humans were originally designed, not only to live indefinitely, but to stay young and beautiful. The first three chapters of Genesis explain how Adam and Eve were created perfect but lost their prospect of everlasting youth when they rebelled against God's sovereignty. The result? Imperfection, ageing and eventual death. (Romans 5:12) Even so, having once been perfect, it took the couple a lot longer to age than it does for us today; in the years leading up the the flood of Noah's day, humans could live for hundreds of years, although life spans became much shorter after the heavenly ocean was let loose and no longer protected the earth.*

The sad fact is, even a tree can last ten times longer than we do - which seems an awful waste of our incredible brains, described by molecular biologist James Watson as “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe.” Just as we learn how to use it, we're too old to care!

Superficially, looks matter too. One photographer who specialises in cosmetics and skin care products believes a model is over the hill at 17, as, by then, the complexion has lost its dewy glow!!

But were we actually meant to grow old? At one time, gerontologists believed human bodies were programmed - to grow, to reach their peak and then to rapidly decline into old age and, eventually, death. Yet some experts into ageing have now modified that view, largely due to the miraculous way the human body functions. 

Biologist Jared Diamond, for example, noted how we “replace the cells lining our intestine once every few days, those lining the urinary bladder once every two months, and our red blood cells once every four months,” adding: “Nature is taking us apart and putting us back together every day.” 

This means that our physical bodies don’t really age at all but, according to one scientist: “In a year, approximately 98% of the atoms in us now will be replaced by other atoms that we take in through our air, food and drink.” 

And, as other experts admit they don’t know why ageing should occur, we have to wonder whether we really should live forever. In his book, Conquest of Death, Alvin Silverstein wrote of his desire to “unravel the essence of life” and to understand how a person ages.” He was convinced that one day there will be no more old people, “for the knowledge that will permit the conquest of death will also bring eternal youth.”


The Telomere

Telomerase research has now become one of the hottest fields in molecular biology, boosted by results from Dr Aboobaker’s recent study.  

Every cell contains a nucleus, a complex control centre, providing instructions for all the cell’s activities. This set code is stored in the chromosomes, a mix of protein and deoxyribonucleic acid, now commonly known as DNA. Although discovered in the 1860’s, DNA’s molecular structure was not fully understood until a century later when biologists began to realise its primary role – to convey genetic information.

At the tip of each chromosome is a short snippet of DNA called a telomere - from the Greek te’los (end) and me’ros (part).  Acting as a protective shield, rather like the plastic cap at the end of a shoelace, the telomere helps to stabilise the chromosome, preventing it from fraying, breaking or sticking. Unfortunately, most telomeres shrink grow shorter with each cell division until they wear away to mere stumps and no longer prove effective. Without the telomere’s protection, the cell stops dividing and begins to die due to the Hayflick Limit, a process discovered by Dr Leonard Hayflick in the 1960’s whereby cells appear to have a finite number of divisions – around 50 during its life span.  

Because of this phenomenon, human cells eventually shrink with age, resulting in our inevitable decay. Not so with flatworms. Their telomeres remain exactly the same, so cells keep on dividing at the same rate. As a result, Dr Aboobaker and colleague Dr Thomas Tan claim to have already isolated the ‘immortality’ gene and feel confident that it may one day help scientists to grow new organs and develop treatments to keep old age at bay. The implication is that if biologists could use telomerase to stop telomeres shortening during normal cell division, perhaps ageing could be halted or at least delayed. According to Geron Corporation News experiments with telomerase have already shown that normal human cells can be modified with “an infinite replicative capacity.”

* The oldest man who ever lived was Methuselah who died aged 969 years in 2370 BCE, the year the global Flood began. Adam lived to be a mere 930 and no human has ever survived 1000 years, which is 'but a day' in God's eyes. 

*Why DO we grow old and die? https://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/good-news-from-god/why-god-allows-evil-and-suffering/