Arts and Culture
The hen that lays golden eggs
Having mastered the art of stumping her parents by repeatedly asking “Why?”, my daughter has moved on to “How?” This presents new problems. While a series of “Why?” questions can eventually be stopped with a philosophical, “Because that’s just the way it is”, lots of “How” questions are more or less impossible to answer.When we’re reading Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance, she asks: “How does Jack’s hen lay golden eggs?” Quite frankly, I have no idea. But there is another “golden egg” matter I’ve been pondering recently, the explanation for which is somewhat less mysterious. Coincidentally, it is also related to Jack and the Beanstalk.
The hen in this scenario is Janice Honeyman; her golden egg, the annual pantomime that she has made her own domain over the course of almost three decades. Happy is the Jack who stages this guaranteed-bums-on-seats extravaganza (for some years now, Joburg Theatre CEO Bernard Jay). And woe to those high-culture theatre snobs whose most insulting comparison ends in the words, “... like a Janice Honeyman pantomime”.
What makes the panto such a sure-fire hit? Habit, certainly; people like their end-of-year traditions. Yet a glance at the audience demographic – which includes plenty of trendy teenagers and urbane adults “unaccompanied” by kids – suggests that this is not just a family ritual. Maybe, before we turn our attention to this year’s panto (yes, it’s Jack and the Beanstalk), we should go back a few steps and ask: What is a pantomime?
The genre is associated with physical comedy and clowning, stock characters, actors working “against” the script (creating a disjunction between word and action, or casting knowing looks at the audience) and, of course, plenty of sexual innuendo. If that were all, however, the Market Theatre’s current production of The Miser could be considered a form of pantomime. And they don’t do pantomime at the Market, do they?
Sylvaine Strike’s rendition of Moliere’s seventeenth-century play is dark and delightful, continuing a performance history heavily influenced by commedia dell’arte – less “comedy of manners”, more “slapstick”. The English pantomime tradition was also dependent to a large degree on the Italian commedia style, so the resonance between The Miser and the panto is perhaps unsurprising.
Between Moliere and his tragedian contemporary, Racine, the French enjoyed a theatrical “golden age” three generations after their English counterparts (Will Shakespeare and company). Drama in the Age of Enlightenment was a terribly self-important affair, however, and the French saw Shakespeare as something of a wasted talent – he broke all the rules of play-writing. Shakespeare’s audiences, too, were considered an uncouth lot: they were known to hiss and jeer at characters they didn’t like, they shouted out their approval or dismay, they answered the rhetorical questions posed in monologues.
It wasn’t just the pre-Revolutionary French who looked down on the Elizabethans. English theatre, too, became increasingly codified – including norms of “proper” behavior for theatre patrons. This did not include shouting at the stage. The sense of audience participation was preserved, however, through the pantomime form. The panto cliché is the communal cry, warning a hero of a creeping villain, “He’s behind you!” (if not booing at said villain enthusiastically).
This kind of audience involvement is a common feature of children’s theatre, as I have been reminded when taking my daughter to see recent Peoples Theatre productions such as Peter Rabbit and Friends and The Little Mermaid. Situated in the Joburg Theatre’s Braamfontein complex, Peoples Theatre stages a handful of productions each year specifically for kids. Taking a detached view of both the excitement and the earnestness shown by the children attending each show, one learns a lot about the operation of imagination without skepticism.
All-too-often the arts are infantilised: painting, singing and dancing are seen as childhood activities that most of us “grow out of” as we become more self-conscious. But in fact we give ourselves too much credit – or we give children too little. They are perfectly comfortable with “breaking the fourth wall”, even if they haven’t heard of Bertold Brecht.
Pantos are, however, not just for kids. Though the ancient Greek word pantomimos refers to an actor who “imitates all”, that doesn’t mean “anything goes” in the modern pantomime, which tends to follow a set pattern. Typically performed over the festive season, pantomimes reinforce the inversion and subversion of those combined Christian-and-pagan Christmas holidays stretching from the ancient Roman Saturnalia to the Medieval Twelfth Night.
Such carnivalesque occasions allowed for temporary disruptions of the social order: masters and servants swapped roles, men dressed as women and vice-versa. It’s not hard to see where the cross-dressing convention of pantomime has its roots. There is always a “dame” in drag; this year it’s Desmond Dube, who has taken over from Tobie Cronje as Honeyman’s preferred man-in-a-dress to play Jack’s mother (Cronje is still prominent – he is cast as arch-villain Henry Hideosa, the Giant’s camp henchman).
Pantomime also facilitates subversion through parody and satire. It does not respect any holy cows – although it often includes unholy cows, usually of the two-humans-in-a-cowsuit kind, as is the case with Jack’s bovine friend Daisy. This year there are numerous references to the stage version of Dirty Dancing at Montecasino, along with various other showbiz in-jokes such as Jack’s association with Idols (Bongi Mthombeni, who fills the role, came to prominence in season six of the show).
Allusions to the Nkandla controversy, the collapse of 1Time and the truck drivers’ strike give this Jack and the Beanstalk a particular socio-political and economic context. Indeed, pantomime may be a distinctly English tradition, but its content is always tied to the time and place of performance. Honeyman’s speech is peppered with “lekker” local diction and phraseology; her characters onstage reflect this.
Nonetheless, there is a risk attached here. Honeyman has, in the past, been accused of exploiting racial or cultural stereotypes for quick laughs – the “Cape Coloured” buffoon or the Afrikaner simpleton, for instance (both of which find their way into Jack and the Beanstalk). Yet Honeyman insists that in pantomimes “we laugh with characters, not at them – if anything, we laugh at ourselves.” Political hyper-sensitivity, she argues, “can be anti-creative”.
Moreover, the general silliness of pantomime can create a “safe” space in which to address otherwise-fraught issues. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the characters “Dom-Dik Canari” and “Mrs Skwashie Mangowashie” butt heads over how to pronounce the name of their town (Doedoela Dorp) – hinting at post-apartheid frictions over processes of naming, name-changes and language preferences.
Pantomimes are visually impressive: “magic” special effects, sets and costumes create a spectacle. From being disdained as “low opera”, they have developed into full-blown stage musicals, with big ensemble song-and-dance numbers. Honeyman places the emphasis on pop music, with lyric twists and unusual mash-ups (think Carly Rae Jepsen meets One Direction) to keep things interesting.
So: how to define a pantomime? In South Africa, a panto is only the panto if Janice Honeyman is directing it. She has also, of course, directed works by Shakespeare, Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, John Patrick Shanley, Andrew Lloyd Webber and many others. But she is widely known as “the panto queen”. Does she mind?
“Not at all,” affirms Honeyman. “I’m very proud of the 26 pantos I’ve done so far. I don’t see them as separate to ‘serious’ theatre work. Great amounts of talent, energy and rehearsal are needed to make pantomimes look ‘easy’ – they’re anything but that!”
* Jack and the Beanstalk is at the Joburg Theatre until 30th December; The Little Mermaid at the Peoples Theatre until 23rd December; The Miser at the Market Theatre until 16th December.
The FM bolsters its feature articles with a "7 Questions" insert. I talked to Ketih Smith, co-producer and co-director (with Jill Girard) of the Peoples Theatre ...
1. When was the Peoples Theatre established, and why?
Jill Girard established it in 1991 – aiming to stimulate a whole new generation of theatre-goers of all races, sharing a universal language with no prejudice. I joined forces some three years later.
2. You and Jill both had varied careers on stage and screen in musicals, dance and “straight” theatre. How did you come to focus on children’s theatre?
Playing Aladdin in a production 30 years ago made me realise that the art of acting, singing and dancing for younger audiences required the same skill as performing for adults.
3. Is there a fundamental difference between “adult theatre” and “kids’ theatre”?
Yes – as a director you must acknowledge the child’s involvement in the action and the plot.
4. What particular demands does children’s theatre make on performers?
Energy, energy, energy. Sincerity and honesty. As a young actor this is the perfect means to hone your craft.
5. In what ways is children’s theatre different from the Pantomime concept?
Children’s theatre is not driven by quite so much farce and adult humour. You are also committed to sticking to the storyline without too much deviation!
6. How do you decide on the shows you will produce? Are you conscious of a balance between, say, Beatrix Potter and Disney? What about South African content?
Regardless of how driven one might be to do experimental or innovative new works (sponsorships are good for projects like this), without the box office sales we would have to close our doors. We are a non-funded theatre company and select shows with broad appeal.
7. What would you say is the general state of children’s theatre in South Africa?
Bringing children to the theatre opens up a whole new world to them – South Africans should recognise the value of this and be more pro-active in encouraging participation, especially schools!