Backstage at the Panto

Backstage, during a pantomime, is an odd place. Actors rush up and down stairs, still putting on their costumes, and communicate with each other and with the stage crew in frantic gestures. No-one speaks. Everyone’s listening. Props and scenery are being whisked on and off, during blackout, and the Stage Manager’s word (or signal) is LAW! No-one questions her authority. There’s no time to renegotiate your entrance or your already-blocked moves. The Director isn’t even there. He’s up the back of the hall with Sound and Lighting. Worrying. You live for the applause, or the boos. They’re really the same thing. It’s the strength of the reaction that shows if the audience are enjoying the show. When I was playing the Baddie in Aladdin, a couple of years ago, at the end of Act 1 a wee boy in Row 2 audibly called me “a jobby”. I strutted back into the dressing-room exultant! Take that Olivier! I thought. High praise!

Caught up in the performance, with the doomed romance of the pretty Hapless Heroine (who probably does kickboxing) and the Handsome Prince (who’s a boyish girl), with the slapstick antics of the fools, all meticulously rehearsed, the exaggerated dramas of the Dame (who’s a man) and the carefully choreographed cries and dance routines of the Chorus, the audience forgets – or never realises – that backstage at the panto we’re all friends. Everyone’s working together. The Hapless Heroine helps me on with my heavy robe – before I go onstage and capture her. The main Fool (the Daftie in Scotland) has a degree in astrophysics and is best mates with his rival – who’s just about to plaster his face with a custard pie. The Chorus aren’t really shocked by my latest Evil Deed. They knew it was coming. They just want to do their number so they can troop downstairs (Shhhhh! says the Stage Manager) and grab a Coke and a KitKat before they’re back on for Act 3.

The conflict in Ukraine is a panto because everything in the Theatre of War is a performance. Right now, a young woman who’s recently been…

  • a beauty blogger
  • pregnant
  • bombed
  • twice
  • dead
  • queuing up for bread
  • a refugee
  • captured
  • freed
  • all of the above, simultaneously

…is now apparently safe and sound in Russia and confusing everyone on Twitter. Don’t ask me what the truth is. I don’t know. I do know that this is political theatre. It’s a panto.

Unlike a friendly neighbourhood panto, in the Theatre of War the participants risk more than a stubbed toe falling over a stage weight supporting the flats. Participation is usually not voluntary and even when there is an actual Baddie, the Goodies aren’t that good. Ask any older Russian what they think about the Yalta Agreement. Or ask an old German about carpet bombing. Ask yourself why you’re surprised that in WW1 the British Army shot shell-shocked soldiers in a pretty little Belgian town called Poperinge, surrounded by Flanders fields. And we all know about Abu Ghraib. No? Look it up. If you have the stomach for it. I’m not providing a link.

The fact that some Ukrainian battalions apparently have links to Neo-Nazi groups, that the persecution of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine has been going on for 8 years and that NATO is using this fake war to play checkers with China doesn’t mean that there aren’t real people caught up in it. I don’t know who those people are, clingfilmed to Ukrainian lampposts, beaten, stripped, raped and doused with water, left to freeze to death. I know that people have been reporting Russian deadly homophobia for years so before you jump to that conclusion – no, I’m not a fan of Putin!

There are wheels within wheels at play here. Suddenly all the slebs are focussing solely on this drama, ignoring the release of Pfizer data on adverse reactions and the conviction of smiling Ghislaine Maxwell – and all the political blackmail that went on with everyone on the guest list at Jeffrey Epstein’s island – as well as the long list of other countries in conflict: #Yemen #SaudiArabia #Palestine #Israel #DRCongo #Syria #Afghanistan #Ethiopia #Eritrea #Colombia #Myanmar #Algeria #BurkinaFaso #Cameroon #Libya #Mali #Mozambique #Niger #Nigeria #SouthSudan #Tanzania #Tunisia #Chile #Venezuela #Iraq.

Backstage at the panto, everyone is cooperating. They’re read the script and they’ve rehearsed the moves. Someone might muff their lines or dry up but that’s no problem. There are plenty more to take their place. People get cut all the time in this production. It’s not only the jokes that die onstage. There are trap doors and not everyone gets the heads up.

The Stage Manager is in charge. In agreement with the Director. No, I don’t know who they are either. But I know that they’re there. And I know that all they want is for you to sit back – and enjoy the show.

Just watch out for the forced Audience Participation. At the Finale.

Scary Clown Faces

Thanks to Circe Denyer for releasing her image Halloween Whispering Clowns into the Public Domain.