British panto brings a contemporary twist to fairytales


LONDON - A figure styled as Donald Trump is booed off stage by a rowdy audience enjoying the thrills of British pantomime, bringing a contemporary twist to traditional fairytales.

Up and down the country over the festive season, children and adults alike flock to theaters to watch a "panto" - complete with princesses, political jibes and innuendo.

Audiences attending pantomimes instinctively know when to yell out stock phrases such as "He's behind you!", while newcomers quickly learn when to join the collective hissing or cheering.

"Lots of Americans who come in are just wide-eyed and can't believe it! And by the end they've got it, they're joining in too," said Susie McKenna, director and actor who plays the Wicked Stepmother in "Cinderella" at London's Hackney Empire Theatre.

"It is definitely unique, it is definitely quintessentially British."

Pantomime traces its origins to the 16th-century "Commedia dell'Arte", a form of Italian street theater which traveled to Britain, according to London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

It was transformed through London theaters, initially with music but no dialogue, morphing into the familiar Christmas panto during the Victorian era.

Pantomimes are now staged at theaters across Britain, often starring a local celebrity and actors of all ages.

In Hackney, McKenna has been writing the annual festive show for nearly 20 years and has become accustomed to another tradition - weaving in references to recent events.

"This year because we were talking about the travesty that is Brexit, we have a character who's Italian who's going to be deported," she lamented, reflecting the views of the largely pro-EU neighborhood.

Tax havens and fake news also get a mention, while the brief appearance of Trump at the royal ball - which Cinderella flees at midnight - speaks to the ongoing saga of the US president's planned state visit to the UK.

"So many people have said to me it was such a release, to feel that they could boo him," said McKenna, recalling audiences' delight when Trump is banished from the ball.

Weinstein scandal

While pantomimes fill big theaters, new spaces are also tackling the genre with one London show this season being performed in a converted caravan.

"Caravantomime" takes on the fairytale "Sleeping Beauty", whose star joins forces with a lost Cinderella to change both their destinies.

"With a bit of sense of humor, we question what's going on in certain fairytales, and we absolutely bring in what's been happening," said Robin Steegman, creator of the 20-minute show she describes as an "anti-panto".

Steegman gives her heroines the agency they lack in their original stories, while also making direct reference to disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein - who is facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, which he denies.

"Sexual harassment, I think, especially in this climate, it's good to bring it to life that it happens in many situations," she said.

But beyond the celebrated traditions on stage, the key to a successful panto is the audience.

"It's different to normal theatre, because normal theatre is like watching a TV boxset but it's live," said Aisha Jawando, who plays Cinderella at Hackney Empire.

"Panto is very inclusive. We want to hear people making noise," she added.

"The last thing is an audience that is willing to have a good time. There's no point coming to a panto expecting to just sit there and watch it, it's a waste!" - AFP