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Pantomime in a Cross-Cultural World

Published: Thursday, 15 December 2016 13:29

Category: The Pamphleteers

You might have thought that there was nothing so English as pantomime, which is as much part of Christmas as mince pies and Christmas pudding – and just about as palatable to the foreign visitor. But of course the panto has very long roots, nurtured in the grand guignol and the harlequinade. They in turn have their roots going back to Greek mime performances, which became popular in Roman times. And only a few years ago I saw a performance of a classical Greek farce at the original theatre in Epidauros, with an international audience in fits of laughter, despite the fact that it was all in Ancient Greek. Odd to think that people have been laughing at fat ladies with frying pans chasing skinny men with strings of sausages for the last three thousand years.

Many of today’s stories come from Perrault, the brothers Grimm and Scheherezade and so pantomime, almost by definition, is multi-cultural, so what better than to have a staff Christmas outing to the Holborn Empire? Much of the humour is visual, and the atmosphere is electric, especially when the double entendres which are put in to keep the dads happy in the matinée become more risqué (or should that be risqués?) for the evening performance. And everyone loves the costumes, from the principal boy in thigh-high boots to the pantomime dame’s absurd outfit.

It is astonishing how quickly the tutors got into the swing of things, once they had got used to the fact that the principal boy is a girl, the dame is a man, and the whole panto world is topsy turvy – which is the whole point, and may even go back to Saturnalia. They were swiftly cheering Aladdin, booing the villainous Uncle Ebeneezer and shouting, "Oh no he isn't" and "Look behind you" along with the best of them. It seems to fit so smoothly into their way of thinking, somehow, and I felt that there was hope for the United Nations when I saw the entire troupe (my lot, not the ones on stage) join in the chorus for the finale in the half‑broken accents of all Europe, which went, "I can't do my bally bottom button up/It's so tight/serves me right/I must have eaten too much pud last night". 

Our Saudi visitors were a little more contained, I must admit. They quite enjoyed the bit with the dancing girls, and the slapstick scene in Widow Twankey's Laundry has universal appeal. (Widow Twankey’s name possibly derives from Twankay, a brand of poor quality green tea from the Chinese town of T'un-ch'i [pron. Tunki] in Anhwei province, which goes back to the days of the tea clippers.) But at the interval one of the group asked me solemnly, "If the story is set in China, why is the villain called Ibn Nasr?" I explained about the Arabian Nights, even though I now discover that Aladdin is not in the original Thousand and One Nights (nor for that matter is Sinbad the Sailor, but I digress). They were inserted by the Eighteenth Century French translator Antoine Galland. It is just as well that Sir Richard Burton’s writing about the Arabian Nights did not come out until 1886-1888 (and in 16 volumes) as it would most certainly not be suitable for a matinée audience – but that is another digression.

One poor Saudi visitor spent the rest of the interval anxiously scanning the programme for other unlikely references to the history of the Middle East. (Ibn Nasr of course was the founder of the Nasrid Dynasty, which was the last Moslem dynasty in Spain, and Ala Ad-Din is a genuine boy’s name meaning ‘Nobility of Faith’). My visitor liked the genies though, and the scene where the palace is transported to Africa was brilliant, (the mise en scène of the London stage is world‑beating) and he was as keyed up as everyone else as Aladdin battled for the fair hand of the Princess Bahadr‑Al Budr. Her name incidentally seems to be based on genuine Arabic names, from badr – moon, and bahadur meaning ‘brave’, though that is usually a boy’s name. But then as this is a topsy turvy world, anything is possible. (Oh yes it is….) Happy Christmas to one and all.

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