Oh No It Isn’t

6 Jan 2011 in General, Robert Livingston Blog

Panto is a vital ingredient in our cultural mix. For many thousands of people, from one year to the next, it’s their only regular experience of live theatre. For quite a few, no doubt, it’s their only experience of any kind of live show. And of course, for most theatres, it’s a crucial opportunity to earn income to subsidise their programmes throughout the year.

So it’s curmudgeonly of me to admit that I’ve got rather tired of the conventional panto format, the type that dominates the big theatres, with celebrity stars, slapstick, garish costumes and sets, and lots of current popsongs. But I do enjoy a good Christmas show, one with a ‘proper’ story. Back in the 70s the Glasgow Citizens led the way in getting back to story-based pantos, with no big stars and no variety turns, and in the 80s Stuart Paterson wrote a series of fairy-tale adaptations with panto elements which, for a time, dominated Scottish stages—his beautiful version of ‘The Snow Queen’ was revived by the Royal Lyceum this Christmas.

Poster for The Secret Garden

Recently, some theatres have come up with an effective and economic way of staging Christmas shows by going into partnership with touring theatre companies. So, in the past few years, we’ve enjoyed Lickety Spit’s ‘Molly Whuppie’ and Mull Theatre’s ‘Katie Morag’ at the Byre, and Wee Stories’ hilarious ‘Jock and the Beanstalk’ at the Traverse. At this point I’d better come clean—Judith and I don’t have any children to take to these shows, we just enjoy indulging our own inner infants.

This Christmas, we managed to dodge the train cancellations and get to and from Edinburgh safely to enjoy a long weekend of no less than three Christmas shows, all delightful, and all very different. In fact, so rich were the offerings on display in Edinburgh this festive season that we could have stayed for a week and gone to a different show every night (Judith was particularly sorry to have missed ‘Hairspray’ at the Playhouse). Perhaps this was just too rich a menu: despite rave reviews, none of the performances we attended had sold out.

First up was Chris Hannan’s new play ‘The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain’. This was one of these coproductions I’ve referred to, between the Traverse, the Belgrade Theatre Coventry, and English Touring Theatre, an arrangement which made possible a truly epic production with a cast of thirteen and terrific sets and costumes, including the scariest giant puppet I’ve ever seen, and thrilling fight sequences.

This was in many ways an anti-panto. Conventional pantos, despite all the cross-dressing and innuendo, have lost any power to shock. Originally, 200 years ago, panto was a deeply subversive genre—think ‘Spitting Image’ crossed with ‘The Young Ones’—but now panto no longer challenges the status quo—it is the status quo. The Three Musketeers stands that on its head with a dark, rumbustuous, vulgar and genuinely offensive tale that had the audience, young and old, shrieking with stunned delight.

The nearest this show comes to a Dame is a Scottish-accented, kilt-wearing, high camp Porthos who, for some bizarre reason, is convinced he’s pregnant. Every conventional panto has a slapstick setpiece built around, say, a laundry, or home decorating. In this anti-panto, that scene is Porthos ‘giving birth’ to an increasingly outrageous list of items, culminating in a set of pink bagpipes. And as if that wasn’t enough, this leads on to a parody of the Nativity that is so gloriously blasphemous that it would be guaranteed to equally offend the Pope and Ian Paisley.

Not for the faint-hearted then, but we loved every minute of it, as the whole show was delivered with unflagging energy, wit and commitment. And at its heart was a serious and moving message, about the redemptive power of love—the same message, coincidentally, that drove our second show of the weekend, Marsha Norman’s and Lucy Simon’s marvellous musical version of ‘The Secret Garden’.

I got to know Lucy Simon’s superb score for this musical from a CD of the British premier, staged by the RSC in 2001, but I never expected to see a production in Scotland. All credit, then, to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre for their bold ambition in mounting a new production, and, in doing so, coming up with an almost flawless staging with so much emotional impact that it had me welling up within the first fifteen minutes.

In many ways this could hardly be more different from ‘The Three Musketeers’, in being a sensitive and faithful adaptation of a great children’s classic, delivered with a complete sincerity that avoided all the obvious sentimental traps. But it also had a lot in common with the Traverse show, not only in its core theme of the power of love to thaw cold hearts and mend broken ones, but also in its reliance on the magic of traditional stagecraft—drop curtains, revolves, trucks, imaginative lighting—rather than on the new technologies of holographs and 3D projections that seem to be taking over pantoland.

I envy any child for whom either production was their first experience of live theatre—each show will have lit a flame that will stay bright for the rest of their lives. Certainly, the children around us at ‘The Secret Garden’ sat spellbound throughout its two hours, even the pair in front of us who had been texting right up till the lights went down.

Our third experience of the weekend was very different. I’ve written in an earlier blog  about the success of satellite relays of live performances, but until now I’d not had the chance to see such a relay for myself. So when I found that, on the Sunday, the Cameo cinema was presenting a live relay of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ from the Bolshoi in Moscow, this was too good a chance to pass up.

The experience was as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be, but it was also oddly surreal in several ways. As you wait for the show to start, you sit in the cinema auditorium, watching the Moscow audience taking their seats in the Bolshoi auditorium (I hope it lacked the smell of drains that hung around the Cameo!). Then, after a brief introduction, we saw dancers limbering up behind the curtain, watched the stage manager cue ‘lights down’ from the prompt corner, and off we went. But of course, as a cinema, the Cameo has surround sound. This meant that whenever the Bolshoi audience applauded (which was frequently), the sound of their clapping was all around the Cameo audience, some of whom involuntarily joined in. This was very odd—it felt as if one audience was haunting the other—but were we the ghosts, or was it the Bolshoi audience?

The filming was simple and straightforward—simpler than I think it would have been for a permanent recording–and so approximated quite closely, I imagine, to sitting in the middle of the Bolshoi stalls and using opera glasses for the big solos. And it was a privilege indeed to see such fabulous dancing so clearly. I was moved more than I expected to be—by the time the final grand pas de deux came along I was almost as affected as I’d been at ‘The Secret Garden’.

So, how important is the sense that this relay is ‘live’, that you’re sharing this experience not only with the Bolshoi audience but with hundreds of thousands of others around the globe? I’d say it’s a major factor, even though I can’t dismiss the unworthy suspicion that it would be easy to fool us all. After all, year on year the BBC is happy to televise something called ‘Carols from King’s’ on Christmas Eve, just a couple of hours after ‘The Nine Lessons and Carols’ are broadcast live on Radio 4. There’s nothing in the Radio Times to suggest that the two broadcasts are different, but they are: the TV version is a completely different event, recorded specially days (perhaps weeks, for all I know) before the ‘real’ service. I applaud the determination of King’s College not to spoil a unique event with all the paraphernalia of TV lights and cameras, but I deplore the BBC’s willingness to mislead its audiences.

In fact, in the light of the success of live satellite relays to cinemas, it’s perverse of the BBC to be moving in the opposite direction. As I mentioned in my last blog, the finals of major music competitions like Cardiff Singer of the World, BBC Young Musician, and Choir of the Year, are all now pre-recorded and edited down to fit a convenient slot in the TV schedules, thus losing almost all sense of occasion or anticipation. And even the nightly concerts on Radio 3 are now almost all pre-recorded, with announcers sitting comfortably in the studio, instead of sharing the concert experience with the listeners.

But there’s another aspect to consider about these live satellite relays. Remember that the NESTA report on the National Theatre relays found that the cinema audiences recorded a higher emotional engagement with the play than did the audience sitting in the actual theatre. Years ago, we had the exciting experience of seeing the English Medieval Society doing their thing at Linlithgow Palace. For someone who grew up on Ivanhoe, Richard the Lionheart, and Sir Lancelot, this was terrific stuff: jousting on huge caparisoned destriers, and archery that showed how English bowmen won Agincourt. But most of the children present paid little attention, or looked bored, and I realised this was because all the action was simply too far away, with none of the immediacy of close ups and surround sound.

There’s a danger then that these live relays might undermine the genuinely live experience by offering that crucial extra immediacy. After all, musicals like The Secret Garden are already performed with every cast member miked up, even for the spoken dialogue, and there have been serious suggestions that the only way to make classical concerts more attractive to younger people is to amplify the orchestral sound. Heaven, as they say, forfend.

So, after my ‘Nutcracker’ experience, do I think that these satellite relays are a wonderful way to open up the great theatres of the world to a wider audience, or are they a pernicious example of a creeping global culture? Both, of course. After all, so far most of these relays concentrate not only on familiar works, but also on very conventional stagings of those works. The Bolshoi’s Nutcracker production, fine though it is, dates back to 1966 and has hardly changed in the intervening years. Mathew Bourne this isn’t. And the Met in New York is infamous for its conventional (many would say, stuffy) productions.

But we’re just in the early stages of this technology. Perhaps, like the Internet, it will become more democratic, and offer a level playing field to enable smaller venues and companies also to reach out to a global audience. That’s certainly what Shetland Arts hope for their major new music and cinema venue, Mareel, opening later this year.  And if they’re right, then we’re on the verge of a very exciting new way of presenting the arts.

 Oh yes we are.

 © Robert Livingston, 2011