Anti-panto

The ethics of Christmas theatre programming

The publicity material for the Royal Court Liverpool's Christmas production, Merry Ding Dong, a new play by Fred Lawless, includes the following, telling disclaimer: "This play contains strong language and is not suitable for bleedin' kids who will spend the entire time running round the place, shouting, eating sweets and being sick. Merry Christmas." Quite.

There's nothing new about British theatres attempting to take the critical high ground in a season invariably defined by formulaic pantos and celebrity career-revival. In fact, theatrically-challenging, adult-pleasing and/or pantomime-inverting Christmas productions are now as common as the kind of traditional family entertainment that places like the Chipping Norton Theatre are famous for.

Consider the Times' "20 must-see Christmas shows": I count only five "traditional" pantos. Even some of the shows on the list with familiar-sounding premises -- Hansel and Gretel at the Bristol Old Vic, say, or Peter Pan at Newcastle's Northern Stage -- are self-consciously choosing to swerve away from pantomimic convention. The former, created by the very fashionable Kneehigh, describes itself as set in "a world that is sweet but never sugary". Peter Pan aims to "rediscover the charm of the original story that has enchanted children for nearly 100 years".

This is, of course, no bad thing. Viv Groskop potentially put it best in a piece she wrote for the New Statesman back in Christmas 2005: "I first saw Danny La Rue in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal in Bath when I was eight years old and I knew a travesty when I saw it," she shuddered. "Even at that age I was appalled that this passed for entertainment and that adults were encouraging us to laugh and enjoy it."

Her article was a bitter dissection of the way Ian McKellen and Simon Callow were post-ironically espousing panto as "the new cool". It's worth pointing this out, I think, because the Royal Court Liverpool would perhaps do well to bear in mind the example of Kevin Spacey's three mid-noughties pantomimes at the Old Vic (the first two starring Sir Ian, the third written by Stephen Fry), which received criticism from various quarters for being middle-aged, luvvie affairs that, by tacitly discouraging children from attending, rather missed the point.

The pantomime season is the only time of the year that children under the age of ten are encouraged (or allowed) to actually visit a theatre -- one thinks immediately of Brief Encounter, and the Jesson children's famous complaint that "there aren't any pantomimes in June". So it seems to me rather curmudgeonly to programme a Christmas production that constitutes just another child-unfriendly occasion. Far more admirable, I'd suggest, to make Christmas theatre about introducing pre-teens on mandatory school trips to proper theatre -- full of style, trickery and colour -- in a manner that, who knows, might just encourage them to explore a different theatre space in June, even though there aren't any pantomimes.

Happily, several Christmas 2009 productions are taking exactly this approach. The Edinburgh Fringe-conquering Fuel are behind The Forest at the Young Vic, a multimedia performance utilising 19 real trees that aims to take 5 to 7 year olds "somewhere unlike anywhere you've been". And an innovative take on Cinderella, which premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith last Christmas and is playing at Warwick Arts Centre this winter, represents a compelling marriage of the Christmassy and the credible.

Like Northern's Stage's Peter Pan, this is a faithfully literary Cinderella: it is, save for a few minor deviations, a judicious adaptation of the Grimm brothers' two-centuries-old tale, complete with heel amputation and Kill Bill-style eyeball plucking. This undoubtedly makes for some welcome relief in a children's entertainment world populated by chastity ring-wearing high school kids and Mormon vampires. It's elegantly written as well. "One . . . time," begins a narrator, sidestepping the age-old opening line. "Cinderella dear, you really are so ostentatiously humble," groans the wicked stepmother later on, drawing chuckles from the adults in the audience (and confused frowns from the little ones).

But the production is so particularly successful, I think, because of its theatrical sophistication. Performed by a cast of just six (and a musician), it tosses together dance, puppetry, live music, non-linear time structures and a relentlessly inventive approach to narrative in such a condensed way that it feels, at every turn, like a celebration of what theatre can do -- and what its rivals, television, cinema and video-games, just can't. Kids leave this Cinderella energised (yelling, indeed) about the theatre. That, I think, is what Christmas theatre-programming should be about.

 

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear