As we head into a winter season devoid still of live theatre and shows, the traditional pantomime – or panto as we lovingly call it in this part of the world – is missing. However, the Olympia Theatre is live streaming Once Upon A Panto until 3 January, and your household can watch it for a fraction of what a number of tickets would cost. It is one way of keeping the tradition alive and supporting a struggling arts sector.
Where did pantomime begin? As a theatrical form it dates back centuries, while some believe that it had its origins in Greek shadow plays. Known as Karagiozis, they featured puppets made from paper, with a puppeteer behind a white cloth.
While these will now be seen as the origin of a different form of theatre, the Romans embraced what we would today see as pantomime with lavish performances that included dancing, narration, music and singing. These started in the reign of Augustus and, incredibly, often saw the performers critical of social order. How very daring, you might say!
The Romans embraced what we would today see as pantomime with lavish performances that included dancing, narration, music and singing
For most historians, pantomime really took hold in Italy from the 16th century on as part of the Commedia dell’arte movement, and moulded itself with other European traditions, such as that of masques (which themselves developed from elaborate court performances). A more public version of a masque would have been a pageant, with all its great colour and music.
From Europe, that tradition moved closer to these shores, and in Britain it took the form of harlequinade, what we now know as pantomime, and also as Punch and Judy puppet shows. In the Victorian era, the second half of the 19th century, these stage shows became very lavish, and it was about this time that pantomime came to Ireland.
It is worth pointing out that today the form of pantomime that we enjoy is very much a British and Irish concept, while further afield it is really a theatrical form that means miming. That said, you will find pantomime performed in Australia, Canada, the United States and in other places.
While pantomime is performed traditionally at Christmas time and aimed at family audiences, its themes are taken from great children’s classics – with a modern-day twist. In essence, they are classic folklore retold as a slapstick comic-musical. They also encourage audience participation – when we have one!
While many classical actors may have abhorred the notion of ever putting themselves on stage in a pantomime, the popularity of the genre has in the last couple of decades seen many famous names strut their stuff, one of the most memorable being an unforgettable Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey in Aladdin, which he played from 2004 to 2006 alongside Maureen Lipman.
In essence, they are classic folklore retold as a slapstick comic-musical
Indeed, Aladdin is one of the most famous tales from the celebrated collection of stories The Thousand and One Nights. The story of Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp was the source for the first stage version at Covent Garden in 1788. The famous clown Grimaldi played in it in 1813, and in 1861 Widow Twankey made her first appearance as a character. Since then Aladdin has been a permanent feature of the pantomime scene.
As you will notice from the McKellen participation, pantomime has a number of conventions which are particular to itself. The dame is usually played by a man in drag, the leading male juvenile character, the principal boy, is normally played by a young woman, most often in breeches, while risqué double entendre thankfully goes over the heads of the younger audience members. Oh, and don’t forget the inclusion of one of the most iconic lines: “He’s behind you”.