09 January, 2008

Pantomime in the Himalayas

By Sushma Joshi
ECS Magazine, December 2007

If location was anything to go by, Cinderella, the annual production by Kathmandu’s Shakespeare
Wallahs, was going to be a miserable experience. The hall inside the British Embassy compound seem to lack that great American invention—central heating. They had, it also appeared, spared no expense to replicate the joys of England—drafty halls, inhospitable corridors, straight backed chairs with meager padding. A glare of great klieg lights shone in our eyes as we waited for the pantomime to start.

The British may have inherited a chilly, dimly-lit island (no fault of theirs), but they sure know how to make something out of nothing with it. Recent reportage claims Britain’s greatest exports are its culture: literature, art, cinema, personalities. As soon as the wicked stepmother and the two ugly sisters stepped on the stage, decked out in their atrocious outfits, the audience knew that recent reportage was right. As long as the British provide the world with a Wicked Stepmother, the sun will continue to shine on their empire.

English pantomime has some special features: the dame is always a man. Male roles are sometimes played by women, and vice versa. The audience is prompted by signs to boo, ahhh, or warn the actors to look behind.

The Wicked Stepmother, aka Baroness Hapless (BOO!) made a big entrance. So did the two ugly sisters (BOO!), who arrived in a gracious flurry of fiercely clashing purple and orange polka dots and synthetic wigs. David Lowen made a giggle-inducing wicked stepmother. His brother is a professional comic, and it seems to have rubbed off on David. The two ugly sisters, Marcia Chadwick and Jackie Creighton, were delightfully ugly and totally synchronized as they preened their hair and swayed to the “party, party, party” Bollywood music.

Cinderella, played by beautiful Kavita Srinivasan, is feisty, modern and insists on her rights. She is disgusted with the word ‘Cinderella’, and demands to be called by her real name, Emalie. No wimpy, waiting by the kitchen in rags for this emancipated woman: she pokes her stepmother so hard in her breast that it (an air-filled balloon, actually) pops.

Things heat up when Prince Charming, played by Adele Pennington, sweeps on stage with some rather long peacock feathers attached to his (her) hat. From the moment the Prince opens his mouth and says “Zees is the way I like eet” the audience is in love with this charmer. The Prince has some special quirks—he likes to speak with a fake French and/or German accent. His father points out that the fake accent is not the way to snag a princess bride, but Prince Charming insists on doing it his own way. Sure enough, Cinderella is totally taken by the accent (never mind its Cinderella who speaks perfect French and the Prince has no idea what she’s saying), and before long they’re hitched.

Greta Rana’s script, with its wicked satire of contemporary mores, resonated with both expatriate and Nepali audiences. The stepmother is filthy rich because her ex-husband ran an NGO. She carries a box saying SPAM, which has three meanings: the spam fed to British troops during World War Two, which was meant to look and taste like real meat but which was made out of old bread and tasted “horrid”; the junk one receives over email, derived from the same word; as well as the spam (literally, junk) that the Seven Party Alliance and Maoists are feeding the people of Nepal. There’s an off-hand mention of Green Cards. In the spirit of sibling rivalry, there is a sly dig at the American embassy’s commissariat, which provides “alcohol to teachers.” And in keeping with British obsession, there’s lots of talk of money and class: the paradox of all class no money, all money no class is revisited.

“We planned to stage Lady Windmere’s Fan,” Greta says. “But then my father died, and the actors were not going to be around in May.” Besides, Greta had had enough of Oscar Wilde. Winter was thepantomime season. It occurred to Greta it might be interesting to stage one. Pantomime dates back to Roman
comedian Plautus, later revived as Commedia dell’arte in Italy during the 16th to 18th centuries. The script is fairly open and actors can improvise. Like Gai Jatra, the aim is to lampoon and satire.

The Internet unearthed a pantomime script—but it cost 1500 pounds and was written for an English audience before Tony Blair stepped down. In other words: expensive and outdated. “I can write a better script than this,” Greta thought. That’s how it started.

Pantomime troupes in the past traveled around European villages and towns, hung out till they caught the local gossip, then spun their story around the locale. Greta thought she could try to do the same. As a writer, she’d written pages of satire for her own amusement. She could write a pantomime script with it.

Greta knew stock characters have an universal appeal through personal experience. She wrote a satire of an imaginary country, titled “Guest in this Country”, in 1994. People said they recognized so-and-so in the story. “You’re in the wrong country and the wrong plot,” Greta answered. People insisted they knew the characters. That’s when she knew she knew she could create characters that the audience could recognize.

The actors were a mixed bag of nationalities: Nepali, Indian, Sri Lankan, British and Australian. Yet they fit their roles perfectly. The secret: Greta wrote the roles for the actors, not the other way around. The characters were constantly aware of the plot they were in—a self-reflexivity shared by both pantomime and postmodern cultural theory.

There’s a Nepali edge to the satire. Greta says she watches Teeto Satya, a Nepali program, on Thursdays. The actor she likes most is the young boy.

“That kid has a real sense of comedy,” she says. Greta enjoys watching school plays and seeing retakes of Broadway plays, but she wishes that children in Nepal would have more scripts based on their own experience. “Kids can be very satirical. They need to tell their own stories.”

The real audience of a pantomime, of course, is children. They’re supposed to get the slapstick but not the double entendre. Like all good writers, Greta sounded nervous as she talked about her youthful audience. In her case, the real proof of the pudding would come from her granddaughters.

As the central heating kicked in (so the British have figured out this great American invention, after all!), and actors filed out to enthusiastic BOOs to the fish and chips supper on the lawn, it was clear that Harry Potter had competition. And pantomime has found an enthusiastic audience in the Himalayas.

Greta says next year’s bag of laughs will be Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The Nepali audience was priced out of the market (Rs.1000/ticket for charity), but perhaps next year there could be a free show or two for children. Or better yet: a script-writing workshop to spread the art.

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