The Last Great Titan

ARTHUR MILLEROne of my absolute favourite playwrights is Arthur Miller. I think I have might have seen more productions of his plays than I have any other single writer – including Shakespeare. He created fully conceived, living, flawed characters who inhabit the stage. A Pulitzer Prize winner for perhaps his most famous work Death of a Salesman, he is amongst the most celebrated playwrights of the twentieth century.

To quote the National Endowment for the Humanities,

For nearly six decades, Miller [created] characters that wrestled with power conflicts, personal and social responsibility, the repercussions of past actions, and the twin poles of guilt and hope. In his writing and in his role in public life, Miller [articulated] his profound political and moral convictions. He once said he thought theater could “change the world.”

It has been said that together with A View from the Bridge and Death of a Salesman, All My Sons established Miller as Ibsen’s dramatic heir.  This obituary from the BBC following his death in 2005, goes as far as saying that as a tragedian, his plays will stand alongside the masterpieces of not only Ibsen, but Shakespeare and Sophocles too.

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So why am a drawn to writing about him today? Well, as A View From the Bridge (above) transfers into the West End in London (also being broadcast to cinemas worldwide later in the month) and a new production of Death of a Salesman  to be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company later in the year, Miller’s plays continue to demonstrate their enduring popularity – for audiences, actors and directors alike.

f2d11603538bbe93d0be50675361f8572015 marks the ten years since his death as well as the centenary of his birth, hence the new productions  – and this is in the UK alone. There have also a been a number of articles published in the last few weeks. From its archive, dating back to 1998, The Guardian shares an interview with Miller, View from the Barricades. It is a wide-ranging piece and makes a really interesting read. The Telegraph in the UK published another, Arthur Miller in his own words: from McCarthyism to Marilyn Monroe which brings together a series of quotations from the man across his career and life.  However, the best and most interesting I have read so far (also from The Guardian) is The economics of Arthur Miller: salesmen, dockers and gilded preachers. It takes a long view of Miller’s plays and explores the role of money as part of the American Dream so vividly captured and painfully explored in much of his great work.

For me though, his appeal goes beyond his genius as a playwright. He was a vocal advocate for human rights and equality and was never afraid to speak out. He challenged the status quo and the establishment almost to the day he died. One of his last public speaking events was to give the Jefferson Lecture in 2001, entitled On Politics and the Art of Acting, bringing together his two great passions.

To end, an excerpt from an interview with Charlie Rose, in which Miller was asked the question, what distinguishes a great playwright?

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A Collective Visionary

croppedimage254254-1927-The-Animals-and-Children-took-to-the-streets-Nick-FlintoffOne of the most innovative and ground-breaking companies I have had the pleasure of seeing in the last few years is 1927. A UK based company, with a global touring reputation, their work is a combination of animation, live performance, theatre and music. They performed in the Hong Kong Arts Festival two years ago, on a tour supported by the British Council,  playing to sold out houses with their piece, Animals And Children Took To The Streets. The fusing of live performance and animation is highly original and they do it to great effect. Their new show, Golum, is currently playing in London and again has been enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike. Following this run, having had it’s premier in Austria at the Salzburg Festival, they are of to Taipei and then Paris.

The reason I mention them today is that I have just listened to an interview with one of the company’s founders, Suzanne Andrade, on Theatre Voice and would recommend it to any theatre maker, but especially to those working in collaborative creation.

You really don’t need to have seen Golum to understand the interview as the focus is really about the truly collaborative process that the company uses to create new work.  In fact I would go as far as using the word inspirational to describe what they do.

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There are also a couple of super articles about their work here and here, both well worth a read.

All Mouth

As the Hong Kong International Arts Festival kicks off this week with a trilogy of Samuel Beckett plays in the shape of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby I thought I would share an interview with celebrated British actress Juliet Stevenson about her current role of Winnie in one of Beckett’s more accessible plays, Happy Days. Stevenson was interviewed by Heather Neill for Theatre Voice in January this year.

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This particular show is a revival of a critically acclaimed production for Stevenson, as these reviews are testament to in The Telegraph and The Guardian. She has spoken extensively about playing Winnie and getting to grips with Beckett, one of them being an interview with Paul Taylor in The Independent.  The productions of Happy days and Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby have brought about a rash of writing in the UK with regard to Becket and his work. One of them, Up to their necks: The singular joys of appearing in Samuel Beckettwritten by Holly Williams for The Independent is great read, as is What lies beneath Samuel Beckett’s half-buried woman in Happy Days written by Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson for The Guardian. Natalie Abrahami, director of Happy Days, spoke in January to the BBC Radio 4 programme Start The Week. This is the excerpt from that programme that carries her interview as part of a panel discussion about memory:

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The production of Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby which we will have the joy of seeing here this week, is the original London production starring Lisa Dwan, on its way from playing internationally in New York and Perth.

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Again, the reviews have been universally superb; The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent all throw superlatives at the production and Lisa Dwan in particular. Dwan wrote a piece published in The Guardian Beckett’s Not I: how I became the ultimate motormouth in which, not surprisingly, she talks about playing ‘the mouth’. You can see an excerpt of her in action here

One review spoke of the piece as being a ….deeply sobering and equally intoxicating experience…[and a] harrowing and beautiful production.  I can’t wait.

Scene But Not Heard

mfQueen-bThis year I am teaching two new courses, both of which lay a greater emphasis on student understanding of the theatre production processes than I have previously had to teach. The roles of performer, director and collaborator have always been at the heart of my classroom, with design at the periphery. However, for me personally as a theatre-maker,  I have always enjoyed the creative process of theatre design and the challenge of bringing a sense of place, time, theme and atmosphere to life for an audience. I wanted to find a way of teaching the art of the designer – lighting, costume and set – that explained the fundamentals without drowning my students in unnecessary theory. Take a look at any published text on stage lighting and you will know what I mean. So I set off on a journey that was fascinating and hugely informative and today’s post is to share some of what I have found.

The internet is an infinite resource it seems in this area, so my first share is about simple, informative basics that come from a series of lectures from Melanie Blood, Professor of Theatre at GENESCO, New York State. The lectures I have read, on theatre lighting, costume and set design are a real 101 primer. Each one is divided under 4 headings – Goals, Tools, Process and Historical Context – of each design area. Simple and to the point, with just the right amount of technical language and readily accessible examples.

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The second is a series of interviews with theatre designers published by Exeunt. Spread across 18 months, Exeunt talks to Nick PayneChloe Lamford, Es DevlinAmanda Stoodley and Jon Bausor about their work and inspirations. All five pieces are worth a read and cover a wide range of design styles and spaces.

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Finally, following a new publication,  World Scenography, 1990-2005 by Peter McKinnon and Eric Fielding, The Guardian offers two galleries of images of stunning designs here and here. The World Scenography series (the first covered the period 1975 to 1990) is an official project of OISTAT, the International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians, and is an attempt to document the most significant and influential theatrical set, costume, and lighting designs from around the world. My copy is in the post.

A Heavy Wei-ght

Shen WeiDriving home from work recently I heard an interview with Chinese-American choreographer and director Shen Wei. Sometimes late to the party, I knew I had heard the name before and with my interest piqued by the interview, which ran as a strand on the BBC World Outlook series, I went digging. Shen came to international renown as lead choreographer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In itself this says something about the man and his international standing. To be invited to return to a country which would have once banned and perhaps renounced him for taking citizenship elsewhere, is powerful statement about his talent. It wasn’t this so much that attracted my attention, but his childhood in Hunan Province. Born during the cultural revolution, his father was a director of a Chinese Opera company and he literally grew up in the theatre. This is the BBC interview

Shen went onto study Chinese Opera at The Hunan Arts School and then to perform lead roles with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company. His journey from there to his own celebrated dance company in New York, Shen Wei Dance Arts is a fascinating one and detailed in these two interviews:

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Clearly never a man to stand still, Shen is now gaining credence as a visual artist too and there is a clear link between the two art forms in much of his dance, easily illustrated by his piece for the Olympics:

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You can watch the same video, with an english commentary here. In another piece, Second Visit of the Empress, he brings together Chinese opera and modern western dance in a wonderful fusion of the two forms:

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Before leaving China Shen was one of the founder members of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and was asked back in 2000 to create a piece called Folding which particularly caught my attention with its stunning imagery. Shen not only choreographed Folding but also designed the costumes, set and make-up.

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Like much contemporary dance, it is hard to draw a line between dance and theatre and the excerpts above make that evident in Shen’s work. For the boy who grew up back stage, the act of making theatre would appear never to be far from the surface.

Endangered Species?

downloadContinuing from the previous post, I wanted to share the final article mentioned, written by Lyn Gardner in her Theatre Blog for The Guardian,  Is the playwright dead? Most of the theatre my students make is collaborative and new, applying and testing the creative skills and performance theory they have learned. However, they are also empowered by interpreting a written text and are challenged by that process in equal measure. As always, I find myself agreeing with Gardner. I have left her original links in the article as they lead to further interesting reading.

Is there an anti-writer trend in British theatre? Only if you insist on a very narrow definition of what constitutes new writing and fail to cherish playwriting in all its rich variety

“There has been a shift of opinion against playwriting, in favour of collective methods of theatre. The very activity of playwriting has been attacked as individualistic, undemocratic and even immoral,” declared playwright David Edgar when it was announced that he would be this year’s visiting professor in drama studies at Oxford and giving lectures and hosting discussions in February.

Blimey! Edgar talks of an “anti-writer trend”. That sounds serious and worrying. I’d like to think that he was being a little tongue in cheek because, after all, he also pointed out that “for the first time in at least 100 years, new work has overtaken the old work in the repertoire”, which can surely only be a good thing for writers of all kinds. Then there’s the roll call of people he’s invited to take part in discussions over the week, who include, among others, Bryony Lavery, David Greig and Chris Goode, who definitely all write plays but who often also create work in many different ways via collaboration, and for whom text plays distinct roles in different contexts.

When I was talking to Scott Graham of Frantic Assembly recently, he talked eloquently about working with Bryony Lavery on Stockholm and how she expressed the wish to write silence, condensing a scene to the point where “words were redundant”. That’s still very much writing in my book, and I bet most other people’s, too.

Frantic Assembly

Frantic Assembly

But even if what Edgar is saying is just a provocation, I’m really not sure that talking about an “anti-writer trend” is either true or helpful. After all, the adaptations of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Let the Right One In are still distinctly scripted plays however many other tools have been utilised to make them. And why wouldn’t all theatre-makers – and that includes playwrights – use all the tools available to them that they find helpful for a particular piece of work? The danger is that Edgar’s statement sets up the idea that different kinds of theatre are in opposition to each other, and that the individual playwright must be at odds and in competition with those making work collectively or collaboratively or using other kinds of theatrical languages.

It’s not a case that one kind of theatre-making invalidates another or steals money and resources away from others. There is room for all comers and different ways of working because different is good and invigorating – and variety adds to the richness of our theatre culture. What suits some as a way of working will not necessarily suit others or perhaps only at particular points in their career for particular projects. Bryony Lavery can work fruitfully with Frantic Assembly and write plays entirely on her own, too. Doing one doesn’t mean you can’t do the other.

David Tennant, Hamlet

David Tennant, Hamlet

Does the fact that we have a variety of methods of working mean that the individual playwright with a singular vision is an endangered species? Of course not. You only have to look at the programmes of our new writing theatres to see that’s not the case. The fact that……. theatres across the country may also programme other kinds of work, some of it made collaboratively, simply reflects the fact that most of those now directly involved in new writing understand that what is needed is a far wider and looser definition around what we mean by new writing. That doesn’t threaten the playwright; it potentially liberates and provides more opportunities.

David Edgar’s week of lectures and discussions do sound fascinating – you can read the programme and participants here. They will all be published online so watch this space.

Is The Playwright Dead?

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Vanessa Redgrave

Today, I have stumbled across an astonishingly fascinating series of video recordings and I am compelled to share them straight away. They come from Humanitas, a series of Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge which brings together leading practitioners and scholars to explore major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities. In one of the strands, Drama Studies, the visiting professors so far have been actor Vanessa Redgrave, director Greg Doran, playwright Athol Fugard and will be joined this year by another playwright, David Edgar. All of them are giants in their respective fields. Fugard speaks in three videos; firstly about the defining moments in his life and work, then about staging his plays and finally about his playwrighting process. In his first video Doran gives a practical masterclass looking at what clues Shakespeare puts into the verse for the actor and in the second, another, masterclass, this time on how Shakespeare spins rhetoric for the actor. However, my favorite, are the series given by Redgrave, doyen of the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic as well as prominent social activist. Click on the image below to take you to the first of a series of four lectures and panel discussions, entitled, not surprisingly, Theatre and Politics.

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The 2015 series, with David Edgar, promises to be equally interesting and provocative as he explores contemporary playwrighting from a number of perspectives. In an article in The Guardian born out of his appointment as Humanitas Visiting Professor, entitled Is the playwright dead?, he is quoted talking about the anti-writer trend that he considers to be prevalent in current collaborative theatre making. This notion will form the basis for his first lecture and the article itself, my next blog post.

Mummer’s The Word

1526395_10152523488451363_3782136421900951347_nI am often asked where I draw my ideas and sources from for Theatre Room. Today’s post is a good example of just how eclectic and diverse those inspirations often are. The image on the left first popped up in my Facebook feed, but it was a busy day and I didn’t read the accompanying post. A day or so later I saw the same photograph in a picture gallery in The Telegraph of a performance celebrating Twelfth Night in London. So this is where the trail began. The photograph is in fact of an old friend of mine, Daniel, who is trustee of and occasional performer with a company called The Lions Part. The Lions Part, amongst other things, recreate traditional Mummers Plays, one of the oldest theatrical traditions in Europe. Mummers Plays or Mumming are short dramas with rhyming texts, traditionally performed at certain times of the year, usually associated with traditional Christian or Pagan festivals, such as Christmas or All Hallows Eve (Halloween). The origins of Mumming are a little obscure, but have been traced to medieval Europe, most specifically Germany, Britain and Ireland although there are suggestions that it was much older than that, perhaps even stretching as far back as ancient Egypt. Another theory places the emergence of Mumming alongside that of Pantomime in the 1700’s, with connections therefore, to Commedia dell’arté

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The word Mummer can be traced to Greek mythology.  Momus was the personification of satire, mockery and censure.  Mummer can also be connected to the late Middle English word mommer and the Old French word momeur.   Each relates to miming, masking and folk play. There is a short but comprehensive history of Mumming and its origins, written by Peter Millington, which you can read here. Millington comments that the exact history is unclear and there are a range of views with regard to the real origins. He points to an even more interesting source of information and research by the Traditional Drama Research Group (TDRG),  based at the University of Sheffield. The TDRG site is simple, but full of interesting information including many original  texts.

In Britain, they are rarely performed today, but the images above show that a few hardy individuals are keeping the tradition alive. This particular performance by The Lions Part has taken place on Bankside, outside the reconstructed Globe Theatre for many years. The Mummers are dressed up as characters such as Turkey Sniper, Clever Legs and the Old ‘Oss and perform a boisterous play about the story of St. George, which dates back to the time of the crusades. This is done alongside other Twelfth Night celebrations, which traditionally mark the end of the winter festivals and the turn of a new year. You can get a sense of the occasion in the video below:

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I was reminded of a recent presentation given by a student of mine, Sidney, on the Irish tradition of Wren Boys which is associated with Mumming in Ireland, where it is also still performed. Perhaps what surprised me most though is that Mumming is still alive and well in Philadelphia, in the US, where there is even a museum dedicated to the form. There is some fascinating (silent) footage from British Pathé which shows the Philadelphia Mummers parade from 1927.  Clearly the American version of Mumming has evolved radically from its original European form, but its roots are evident.

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In the unlikely event I ever find myself in London in the middle of a freezing European winter, I shall certainly be taking a look at this great theatrical tradition.

Moving On

NT DiscoverSo the first post of 2015 is a an easy one. A few weeks ago I shared a video about creating modern interpretations of Greek Chorus, made by the National Theatre in the UK (Group Chat). Since then they have released 3 more videos about various aspects of creating chorus as part of their Discover National Theatre strand:

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Also part of Discover is the series of videos about Movement Direction, which are also a great little watch:

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All short, but perfectly formed and super starting resources.

There Is Nothing Like A Dame

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Jack and the Beanstalk, Drury Lane Theatre in 1889

It’s that time of year again, where I am forced to confront my prejudices about the great British theatrical tradition of Pantomime. This year, the International Baccalaureate Organisation re-wrote their Theatre Arts course and Pantomime was placed firmly alongside other world theatre traditons such as the beautifully artistic Indian Kathakali and Japanese Noh. I’ve written about it before here (this time last year, in fact) and I still struggle with it as a legitimate theatre form. I can’t help finding it all rather crass.

I have to remind myself that every year in the UK (and some former British colonial territories) Pantomime is hugely popular – 23 professional performances in the London area alone. Add to these the hundreds of performances outside the capital and the thousands of amateur groups doing their festive Pantomime thing, it is the most popular theatre form in the UK. I’m not going to get into why it’s still so popular, and why it draws huge audiences – that fact is that it is, and it does. Take a look here at the National Database of Pantomime Performance to get a real sense of just how widespread the form is.

However, my intellectual snobbery has been somewhat quashed by a number of things, including a superb article in The Guardian, The Golden Age of Pantomime, written by veteran British actor Simon Callow. It is actually a review of a new book, The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion in Victorian England by Jeffrey Richards.

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The golden age of pantomime

Panto has long provided the heart, soul and high camp of the festive season. How did it all begin?

As you get your kids and your parents and maybe your grandparents ready for your visit to the panto this year – and panto is still in rude health, for many people the only time in the year they go to a theatre – you might perhaps wonder how such a gloriously odd phenomenon came about. There are interesting reasons for this unique combination of the broadest of broad comedy, a sentimental love story, a hero in fishnets, a brick shithouse of a comedian in tights, a ton of spangly scenery and audience participation on a nearly terminal scale, but what’s most surprising is how passionately people have felt about pantomime throughout its history: it has been perceived as important, this mad farrago, this theatrical mongrel that is barely deserves the name of genre.

In 1867, the Era newspaper was pronouncing ex cathedra on the subject: “Time in his course has built up pantomime into an institution as venerable as Magna Carta, as sacred as the bill of rights, as dearly cherished as habeas corpus. The Pantomime is considered as worthy of the boards of Old Drury [Lane] as the works of Shakespeare himself.” But just five years later, there was a furious attack on the form pantomime was taking: what had happened to the charming clowns of yesteryear, the beauty, the innocence? What was this unrelenting emphasis on “that terrible managerial Frankenstein, the Transformation Scene”? No less personage than Ruskin wrote of the long-lost Arcadias of Pantomime. But the truth is that, like Christmas,, like Christmas, pantomime has never been what it was but was forever being refreshed and reinvigorated.

In a new book, The Golden Age of Pantomime, Jeffrey Richards opens with a brisk trot around the birth, development and – depending on your point of view – apotheosis or implosion of panto. It grew out of a partial and never entirely completed merger of three quite separate forms: the harlequinade, an almost completely wordless comic interlude, based on the classic commedia dell’arte characters of Arlecchino, Pantalone and Pulcinella; the extravaganza, a sophisticated and witty satire based on Greek and Roman myth or fairytales; and burlesque, which, as Richards says, irreverently sends up “everything the Victorians customarily took seriously: such as English history, grand opera and Shakespeare”. These elements sometimes existed separately, in parallel, as it were, and sometimes vied for dominance within pantomime itself. Inevitably, a form that was always essentially popular would also reflect the temper of the times, and those times were changing rapidly and radically.

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Between 1780 and 1850, according to social historian Harold Perkins, “the English ceased to be one of the most aggressive, brutal, rowdy, outspoken, riotous, cruel and bloodthirsty nations in the world, and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly, tenderminded, prudish and hypocritical.” As with the nation, so with pantomime. The greatest of all British clowns, Joseph Grimaldi, who died in 1837, the year the young Victoria became queen, belonged to an older dispensation: Joey, “the urban Anarchist”, was a force of nature, “a half idiotic, crafty, shameless, incorrigible emblem of gross sensuality” ready, Richards says, “to defy authority, law and convention for his own immediate gratification”. His comedy was dangerous, reckless, but deeply recognisable; he was a Gillray cartoon come to life, embodying the spirit of the Regency.

But long before Grimaldi retired, the Evangelicals, seizing their moment as the industrial revolution wrought its changes, had moved in on the nation. And pantomime rapidly began to clean up its act. The genres of burlesque and extravaganza offered fantasies, either ancient or otherworldly, that transported the audience. They were not uncritical of the world around them – satire of a genteel order was acceptable – but the watchwords were elegance and taste. JR Planché, an homme de lettres of Huguenot stock, dedicated himself from his first play as early as 1818, to raising standards, to eliminating the “coarse exaggeration and buffoonery of pantomime”. Teaming up with Mme Vestris – deliciously described as “the most dangerous actress in London” – he wrote and produced a series of shows that were somewhere between extravaganzas and revues, often derived from the French theatre. Olympic Revels and its sequel Olympic Devils were major hits – Offenbach without the tunes. A costume historian by training, he introduced a new level of historical accuracy in setting and clothing and raised the visual tone.

He came to regret the prominence he had given to design. Victorians were intensely visually aware, fascinated by the vast array of new stimuli available to them – the illustrated magazines, the dioramas, the daguerreotypes, the museums – and above all intrigued by the power of optical illusion. A new generation of skilled scene-painters grew up to answer this fascination, and soon began to dominate the performances.2063

Dickens’s friend Clarkson Stanfield had painted many of the dioramas which were briefly inserted into the harlequinade; these proved so popular that they were expanded, and expanded, until, the element of spectacle that they provided threatened story, character, comedy. A master of painting and stagecraft then appeared, a man who has a reasonable claim to be considered the central genius of the Victorian pantomime – William Beverley, who year after year realised one astounding vision after another. It must have been like MTV for his audiences, a kind of theatrical Cinerama, though sometimes the descriptions make it sound more like an acid trip. In Riquet with the Tuft, the Times reported, “there are some 70 or 80 mushrooms, the chief fungus being Miss Hart, which, opening, gradually expand and disclose, reclining in each mushroom, a demon dressed in red with battle axe … when the mushrooms fully expand, the demons simultaneously rise, and beginning to dance, are interrupted by the appearance of Mother Shipton, when they fall to their knees, producing,” the reporter understates, “a novel and exciting effect”. After these transformation scenes had completed themselves, “Cries of Beverley! echoed instinctively though the house.”

Planché and his younger fellow author, EL Blanchard, both felt that their carefully crafted work was underappreciated. They were men of taste and intelligence and some sophistication; they summoned worlds that delighted their audiences. “Each Christmas and Easter for many years,” Richards writes, “the theatres for which Planché worked were filled with fairies, wizards, witches, ogres, dragons, elves, dwarves, sprites, anthropomorphic animals, spells and transformations, magic rings and magic swords, enchanted trees and flowers.” It was The Lord of the Rings avant la lettre. Blanchard, who left a remarkable diary that takes us right to the heart of the Victorian jobbing writer’s life, pulled off the enviable coup of reviewing his own shows under a pseudonym. “It is probably,” he wrote of one of his own pieces, “one of the most original in subject, and most effective in treatment that has ever been offered to the public in this or any other house.” Blanchard’s range was extraordinary, encompassing both fairytale whimsy and up to the minute topical comment, like The Birth of the Steam Engine or The World of Wonders; he was essentially conservative, but strongly against the 1872 Licensing Act: “Some folks have lately come to think / That other folks ne’er want to eat or drink / That bread and cheese and beer must lead to crime / Should they be swallowed past a certain time.”

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Imperial themes increasingly began to feature in the shows, resulting in a carnival of political incorrectness: in Jack and the Beanstalk, played in the presence of the Prince of Wales, a group of minstrels – blacked up, needless to say – sang merrily in the background, as children dressed as monkeys swung from the trees, gaily dressed natives (also blacked up) flocked on with banners inscribed with the words “Tell mama we are happy”. In Queen Maba few years earlier, the Indian Mutiny was reenacted in comic form: at one point a clown, dressed in the uniform of the Grenadier guards, killed an insurgent sepoy, then stuffed his body into a mortar and fired him at a butcher’s shop, where he ends up on hooks, replacing the mutton and beef.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Augustus Harris Jr was himself an imperial figure: he took over Drury Lane, after two larger-than-life predecessors had failed, and made it a triumph of Roman proportions; Fleet Street dubbed him Augustus Druriolanus. At the same time as managing Drury Lane, he was running Covent Garden, Her Majesty’s and the Olympic, while sitting on the London County Council and serving as Sheriff of London for nine years. His day would start with dictation from the bath, after which he would meet his creative teams – there were always many shows going on simultaneously, each of which required his personal intervention. Writers, designers, costumiers did their best to keep up with him, executing his sometimes rather imprecise ideas, sketched out on tablecloths or scraps of paper. He met and dispatched the provincial managers, having quizzed them on the details, of which he always seemed to command a greater knowledge. He then proceeded to plough through an enormous lunch, which, his biographer said, ensured that on arrival at the theatre he would be filled with “an energy that was simply appalling”. He directed rehearsals intermittently, withdrawing to deal with some other aspect of the business; he would snatch a nap, or perhaps a more prolonged slumber, then change into evening dress. He stayed right to the end of every show, then dined extravagantly at his own restaurant before heading home to plan, scheme, dream the next cycle of work. Unsurprisingly, he died at the age of 46. His attitude was entirely pragmatic; he aimed to give the people what they wanted and the audiences loved what they got. It was often blatant jingoism. In 1897, the Kaiser was guyed as Prince Paragon. Two years earlier, in Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant was called Blunderboer. When he was arrested, from his pocket emerged a miniature army played by children, some riding small ponies, dressed as soldiers. “There was considerable enthusiasm,” says Richards, drily, “when they raised their helmets on their rifles and sang ‘Rule Britannia’.”

Not everyone was delighted. The spectacular element had gone way beyond anything that troubled Ruskin and co: “the monstrous glittering thing of pomp and humour,” said the Star in December, 1900, betraying an odd unease both with empire and this theatrical child of empire. But in another sense, Harris had restored panto to itself. He invited musical hall performers to participate in his shows, and with them, they brought something of the old rude energy, the quirkiness, the carnival quality that Grimaldi embodied. Genius actor-comedians such as Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd made an extraordinary impact, often writing their own lines and singing their own songs, with which the audience up in the gods gleefully sang along. Charles Lauri’s Man Friday was a vivid creation; Fred Storey’s King Hullaballoo played “with as much care and dramatic intensity as though he were playing King Lear – which of course,” the writer adds, “has been the method of the greatest burlesque actors”.

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During the long twilight of empire, panto still rode high. Despite rationing, both of fabrics and building materials, it continued to triumph during and after the second world war. But the arrival of television at the end of the 1940s immediately threatened the existence of theatres and, more subversively, the nature of panto itself. TV stars who had little more than celebrity to offer were imported, while variety, from which panto had drawn so many of its stalwarts, was in sharp decline. It became simultaneously costly and vacuous and began to disappear from West End theatres; it survived elsewhere in Britain – not least in Scotland, where the variety tradition was, and is, still strong – but only just. Then, in the early 70s, something unexpected happened: shoots of new life started to emerge. Alternative panto began to flourish on the fringe: there were gay pantos, black pantos, feminist pantos and Marxist pantos, there were Chickenshed pantos, and physically challenged and able‑bodied young actors performed their Twankeys and their Abanazars, their Baron Hardups, their Dicks and their Jacks amid unseemly mirth.

And then another funny thing happened on the way to Christmas: a class of actors known derisively among the music hall community as lardies – legitimate actors – became interested in what they would no doubt have called “the genre”: the RSC presented a panto in 1981; and Ian McKellen and Roger Allam gave the spirit of Lilian Baylis a spin in 2004 when they triumphantly brought Aladdin in all its ribaldry to the Old Vic. Meanwhile, a generation of American stars who had – who knew? – theatre backgrounds showed up to give their Captain Hooks, with actors like David Hasselhoff and Henry Winkler performing alongside copper-bottomed (no, missus!) homegrown stars such as Christopher Biggins and Bonnie Langford, who carry the grand old traditions forward like beacons.

2058

There has always been a certain uncertainty about what panto is – which continues to the present day. Above all, it’s about the relationship between the actors and the audience. It is essentially theatrical. It can be magical and it can be hilarious; it can be awe-inspiring and it can be seriously subversive. As long as it’s alive and kicking, it’s in touch with its roots.

Christopher Biggins in Dick WhittingtonI also listened to a programme broadcast by the BBC over the holidays. There’s Nothing Like A Dame was hosted by Christopher Biggins (pictured right), a British celebrity/actor known for playing the role of the Dame. The programme (which is embedded below) is very UK centric in its references but it does give a real flavour of this populist theatre tradition. Amongst others, Biggins talks to Simon Sladen, an academic widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading experts on British Pantomime. Sladen is also Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V &A) in London.

The V & A website carries a good history of Pantomime and places it in its social and political contexts. In the video below, Sladen delivers a paper, Did you ever see such a succulent dish of Chinese takeaway?, about Peter Nichols’ play Poppywhich subverts the pantomime form to explore a particularly dark moment in the history of Victorian colonialism – the Opium Wars.

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It strikes me that Pantomime has a long and subversive history, which has been generally lost in its current, Z list celebrity filled form. Shame!