When trying to explain what pantomime is, perhaps the best place to start is ruling out what it isn’t! No, pantomime is not a group of people silently waving their hands across imaginary walls in the style of Marcel Marceau! Pantomime is a comedic production full of laughs, music and big characters.
While pantomime as we know it today is largely associated with being an English Christmas theatre tradition, its roots travel far further, to 16th Century theatre, particularly the Italian touring shows of the commedia dell’arte.
Commedia dell’arte companies toured Italy and later France presenting comedic productions that followed a consistent story line with familiar characters. From this tradition emerged characters like the Harlequin that later crossed over into English productions. As the productions evolved, so too did the staging. By the 17th Century sets were becoming more complex and more characters and theatricality added.
By the Victorian era, these productions had begun to be associated with the Christmas period and story lines were expanding to include productions of traditional fairy tales, predominantly aimed at a young audience. As the shows progressed, elements of music hall and burlesque began to creep in as well.
The modern pantomime continues the tradition of presenting a familiar collection of characters – many of whom would have been well known to 16th century audiences – the star crossed lovers, the over-protective father and the comic relief. Today no pantomime would be complete without a Dame – a man dressed as a woman, playing an outrageously over-the-top character. Expect lavish “eye catching” costumes and wigs!
And those characters will often behave according to tradition. For example, the evil character will always enter the first time from Stage Left, and the good fairy from Stage Right – a hat tip to the days when the right side of the stage denoted heaven and the left side hell.
It’s Behind You!
Pantomime is also all about audience participation. Rather than sitting quietly in their seats, the audience is expected to boo the villain, cheer the hero, and warn the characters when bad things are about to happen. Characters will go out of their way to win the audience over to their side and gain their sympathy. The traditional call and response of “Oh no he didn’t! Oh yes he did!” are staples of most productions. There is no fourth wall in the pantomime world. A good pantomime cast will ensure that its audience is well and truly engaged in the goings on!
At its best, pantomime is about bringing light relief to the long winter months. It is a chance to be transported to another place - to laugh, groan and forget about the outside world for a while - something we all could do with right now!
Our Christmas pantomime - Robin Hood - will be performed on Friday 14th and Saturday 15th of December. For more information check out our upcoming shows page.