Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty & The Beast – just some of the well-known fairy tales you may have seen or heard in your youth. They are the ancient stories that have been manipulated over the years and regurgitated in varying formats, whether it is through Disney’s wide-eyed Technicolor lens or the Christmas and New Year pantomimes. Up and down the UK you will see the ubiquitous posters – cheesy shots of vaguely known soap and reality TV stars, and aging comedians, enticing us to the theatre with their kilowatt smiles. And do you know what? It works.
Hoards of families flock to venues to see these all-singing, all-dancing productions. Often considered as fairly ‘low brow’ entertainment, you are guaranteed a concoction of bawdy, slapstick humour; garish sets; an archetypal villain and some cross dressing. Oh and a big old chorus number at the end; twee and brash with a smattering of Carry On innuendos thrown into the mix. But we now seem to consider it an incredibly British tradition. Although it has its original roots in Ancient Greece, pantomime is also considered to have clear links with both commedia dell arte and the Mummers’ plays of old. They feature rituals such as the Dame character that we all know and expect to see. It is also a forum for reaction where boos, hisses and squeals of “he’s behind you!!” become second nature to the excitable audiences. Children are actively encouraged to verbally jeer the performers in a playful form of direct interaction.
It is also worth noting that for many children, a trip to the pantomime at Christmas time may be their annual, or first, trip to the theatre. The challenge is to encourage families to see a more diverse range of theatre. This is one of the reasons we chose to work with a well known fairytale. Once stripped of all the stereotypical layers, the tales are often rich sources of folklore 0 often for adults as much as for children.
At Filskit, we have found we have to be fairly cautious with our marketing of Snow White. One incident saw us wrongly described as a wholesome Blackpool panto on a ticketing website. Unfortunately, our telling is slightly darker, with a rather unsavoury Princess and without a dwarf in sight (or a Prince Charming for that matter!). It did mean we had a single occurrence of a very small child unable to understand where the dwarves were and why Snow White had blonde hair.
The problem with film depictions and pantomimes is that they have greatly influenced the general perception of what people expect to see. In our research for Snow White, we deliberately chose to look pre-Grimm and pre-Disney to get a real flavour of the story’s roots. Internationally, there are countless versions of the tale – ranging from the very dark and nonsensical to the downright illegal. Frankly, there’s a large amount of necrophilia in several adaptations that we unanimously decided to avoid!
So when considering a fairytale for theatre, do you have an obligation to provide the audience with what they are expecting, including doe-eyed singing princesses? Or should you challenge your audience with past tales or even add your own twist that may be darker and a little more unsettling?
Fairytales have for a long time been a psychologist’s best friend when it comes to explaining society’s attitudes – indeed many people have tackled traditional tales in order to artistically reverse our expectations, whether it is the princess who takes control over her own destiny or the children who, after being abandoned in the woods, do not find their way home – these stories are continually morphed and changed to be appropriate to the community they are for. Therefore when we were creating our story, we realised that we had a great deal more licence with the story than we first expected.
This is not to say we threw away the rule book. When performing to children, there are certain aspects of the pantomime that work very well. As anyone who has taken part in or even attended a piece of children’s theatre will notice, children do like to be vocal. They respond very well to direct address which can help to keep them engaged as they feel as if they are being taken along the journey with the characters. This can help hold their attention and also encourages them to empathise with the protagonist – and therefore the emotional ups and downs of the plot. It is interesting to work with and also against the clear character archetypes. In our case, Snow White is set up to be the beautiful girl of legend, which is then subverted by showing her to be quite the anti-Princess in behaviour! This can be humorous and also refreshing for young audiences. A 2010 production of Beauty & The Beast at The Unicorn showed the heroine to be a feisty, temperamental tomboy, altering the popular perception of the mild mannered, beautiful (but often dull) saps we are frequently offered in panto.
This is not to dismiss pantomime out of hand as it can be a fun (albeit somewhat kitsch) night at the theatre for children, which in itself has to be a positive thing – yet there is the possibility of so much more. Perhaps it’s time some alternative stories took top billing around the festive period. We are finding it a challenge managing expectations of the classic tale but at the same time revelling in making it our own story. Let’s have less “oh no you can’t” and more “oh yes we can!”