Sunday 30 April 2017

Theatre: Panto thrives in the age of Trump - oh yes, it does!

Monster's ball: Stars of Beauty and the Beast at University Concert Hall, Limerick
Monster's ball: Stars of Beauty and the Beast at University Concert Hall, Limerick

Chris McCormack

There you are, producing a new adaptation of a well-known story - an immersive event that encourages audiences of all ages to speak some dialogue. It will unite popular ­performers with lesser-known ­players, use drag and even cleverly respond to recent events in the world. But will your work get the recognition it deserves?

Pantomime is not taken seriously in Ireland. The Arts Council doesn't recognise it as an art form. Nor does it have an awarding body (though an annual Great British Pantomimes Awards has just been announced in the UK to celebrate acting roles such as dames and ugly sisters, as well as overlooked disciplines like set and costume design).

Its origins are more exotic than you might think. In 16th century Italy, street performers charmed their audiences with spectacular effects and recognisable lovers and servants from mask comedies. The characters of Commedia dell'arte, as this theatre was called, were borrowed for the English stage by the late 17th century and started making yearly appearances at Christmas in plays based on famous fairy tales.

The first panto at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin was staged in the late 19th century. In the 50s and 60s, native pantomimes were produced at the Abbey Theatre, with titles such as Setanta agus an Chu and Aisling as Tír na nÓg.

Panto draws suspicion from the rest of the theatre sector. "There are a lot of actors who simply won't entertain the idea of doing pantomime," says Robert C Kelly, currently producing Beauty and the Beast at University Concert Hall, Limerick. "In fact, several agents have said to me their clients won't do it because it would damage their career."

Perhaps that concern is misplaced. Brian Murray, formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company, starred in Jack and the Beanstalk at Dublin's Tivoli Theatre in 2012 and could still speak in iambic pentameter and work profitably afterwards. Kate Gilmore played a young woman weighed down by Catholicism in Gillian Greer's verse play Petals and, after her current run as Maid Marian in the Gaiety Theatre's Robin Hood and his Merry Men, will probably take other dramatic roles.

There are practical reasons for taking the job, including the pay packet. Kelly says actors can earn a lot more in panto than in their other work. "Smart people have got over the sneering and got into collecting of the money," he says.

It is surprising to think the genre wouldn't attract adventurous artists. Karl Broderick, writer and producer of the Tivoli's panto, speaks excitedly about the potential of breaking the fourth wall, the struggle of presenting realism, and even draws a comparison between Macbeth and his current production: Aladdin ("in the industry, it's the cursed pantomime"). Broderick came to the role having gone to pantomimes as a child. "I often saw the plot go off in tangents that were just for adults" he says. "Then there would be scenes just for the children and the parents were left behind. I want to entertain both at the same time."

Double meanings aren't easy to write and Broderick has found himself trying to find the tasteful line between rudeness and innocence, adult-friendly and child-friendly. When he produced Cinderella in 2014, he had the stepsisters plead to their mother: "Oh Mammy, can we go to the ball? I hear the prince's balls are only massive." The line was met with laughter from all camps. He also enjoys teasing out the brazen background of the grand dame played by Rob Murphy ("she loves the daddies").

But Broderick and others acknowledge the story is a greater priority than the gags. Trevor Ryan, writer and director of Cinderella for the Cork Opera House, stands firm on cutting out any unnecessary distractions. While other panto-makers avail of 'star power' (you'll find Karl Spain in Beauty and the Beast and Nadia Forde with Brian Dowling in Aladdin), Ryan is relying on the lesser-known Molly Lynch, recently seen alongside Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd on the West End. "Kids are coming from seeing the Disney-animated classics and we're trying to satisfy that," he says.

But a promised fairy-tale world isn't easy to create. While Broderick is figuring out the technicalities of Aladdin's magic carpet, Ryan is similarly putting tricks on a flying horse and carriage. "It doesn't look mechanical at all. It looks like pure magic!" he says, sounding relieved.

Part of the appeal is anticipating how the production will borrow from popular culture. "Any panto worth its salt will have the big events or comedy moments of the year," says Kelly, who last year drew on Teresa Mannion's dramatic report on Storm Desmond. This year, he's reticent on the details ("I'm not giving the others ideas").

These jokes are clearly industry secrets, and panto-makers will keep track of topical references throughout the year. Broderick is confident that a line he's written about Donald Trump's 'wall' will be accessible to both old and young crowds, while Ryan is satisfied with a reference to this summer's Pokémon Go!.

What do we make of these references? "They're not about making a serious point," urges Kelly. Instead, laughing at the headlines of the past 12 months, especially after this troubling year, might be good for us. 2016 - it's behind you!

Beauty and the Beast runs at the University Concert Hall, Limerick (Dec 19-Jan 8), Aladdin runs at the Tivoli Theatre, Dublin (Dec 13-Jan 15), Cinderella runs at the Cork Opera House (until Jan 22) and Robin Hood and his Merry Men is at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin (until Jan 8).

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