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From the Province of the Cat #34 – Here’s Looking At You

Panto:  Scottish theatre's rags to riches story

Panto: Scottish theatre’s rags to riches story?

As we enter the final month of this extraordinary year for Scotland and head for the shortest day and the longest night of the Winter Solstice on 21st of December, it may seem to many that the past twelve months, since this time last year, have been a dream. At the Radical Independence Conference those present were urged to “multiply the dreaming power of the ordinary Scottish citizen.”

“It is a dream that I in sadness

Here am bound, the scorn of fate;

It was a dream that once a state

I enjoyed of light and gladness.

What is life? It is but a madness.

What is life? A thing that seems,

A mirage that falsely gleams,

Phantom joy, delusive rest,

Since is life a dream at best,

And even dreams themselves are dreams”

So had the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca have his hero Segismundo (a prince who dreams of being a king) reflect in his great play of 1635 “Life is a Dream”. The plays central conflict of liberty in opposition to destiny and its themes of free will and justice are as pertinent to us now in post-referendum Scotland as they were in 17th century counter-reformation Spain. These dualities are part of the instinct and intellect clash which is a constant of the human condition. The concept of reality as an illusion can also be traced back to pre-Buddhist India of 500 BC and I suppose if you were one of the lucky twelve thousand in the Glasgow Hydro who recently cheered Nicola Sturgeon’s every word you may or may not, after the event, wonder just what was real and what was razzmatazz?

Whether you seek post-September psychological solace, political enlightenment in these strange days or the origin of your dream in showbiz or under the Bodhi tree is, I suppose, a mixter-maxter of choice, luck and forestation. In northern Europe access to the sacred fig tree as a place for sourcing the power of dream has always had limited climatic possibilities – with the exception of the sacred oak groves of the Celtic druids – so traditionally societies have usually opted for a specified space (usually but not exclusively covered because of the weather) in which to engage in collective dream-work. These enclosed spaces we now call theatres. In these shrines psychology, politics, entertainment and the power and meaning of dreams become as one.

As December hangs her coloured bait-lights along our High Streets and unfurls her blood-soaked cloths of consumerism across the windows of our eyes, the goods and chattels which tie us to the permanent now of buying things we do not really need for reasons we do not fully understand lie spread out before us, glittering and irresistible in those abattoirs of reason and ecology commonly known as supermarkets and shops.  So too, in this season, do our theatres enter into a dream-state of mutual pathological unconsciousness and deep artistic slumber: yes, it is panto time in Scotland!

This in many ways is the most honest period in the theatrical year: for four to six weeks Scottish theatrical managements can gleefully abandon all pretence at high cultural provision and artistic contextualising and go hell-bent for the one thing they collectively desire above all else: money. For many theatres in Scotland pantomime is the product which means they stay open the rest of the year. In December princes do not so much dream of being kings but rather are terrified of remaining frogs as countless Cinderella’s long to go to the ball and become princesses. In their eagerness to hear the cash registers ringing the theatres insist that we forget everything. From episodic reality we are invited to abstain; we are invited to abandon narrative and enter into the realms of the abstract. All this and ice cream too.

There is, tragically, a problem here: theatre is not an abstract anything, whether it is pantomime or Peer Gynt. It doesn’t exist solely to be a vehicle for the pursuit of career or for the sating of the appetite of the ego or for selling ice cream. It is entertainment certainly, but it is also public storytelling; of understanding society’s experiences through the application of language and the setting of action in a defined space in order to illustrate a particular situation. A series of specific detailed instances results in a general picture of humanity. This picture is what we see when we look at ourselves when we go to the theatre: it is what we witness on stage. Or it should be. Instead, now, the pantomime extends all year long. Those who mind the books of our producing theatres are unsure how to manage this creeping extension.

Celebrity performers, preferably an “award winning” one, as opposed to mere actors; a five star review (from somewhere) and a stunning set: all these are part of the modern orthodoxy which both guarantees and demands success. These are the external pressures anyone trying to mount a production on a Scottish stage has to deal with and are amongst the primary components which must be delivered if project A is ever going to move to the actuality of B (a production) and then on to a positive cash result at C.

Pantomime has many good qualities. For generations of young people it is their first experience of theatre and it also often the only annual visit to the theatre for many accompanying adults. Pantomime breaks down the “fourth wall” of conventional theatre which, in urban Scotland, demonstrates its roots in the industrial working class love of variety and music hall. This is a different experience to English pantomime which, on a good night, looks to the 19th century tradition of harlequin and clowning which itself has its origins in Italian comedia dell’arte. Commercial pantomimes in London now have drifted far from this and are little more than product placements for TV soaps and game shows. Scottish panto has maintained a more direct folk-link with its audience and is absolutely concerned with making people laugh.

Whether it makes them think is another question.

For all the support from the arts community in Scotland for the Yes campaign expressed solidarity for independence from the Scottish theatre sector was a much quieter affair. There were many individual manifestoes from actors and writers and it is true that a handful of productions were mounted at the Festival Fringe last Summer – my own “Three Thousand Trees” by Grey Coast being one – and they did bang the independence drum, but from the theatrical mainstream such manifestations were tributary affairs rather than main stage moments. Scottish independence made many theatre managements nervous.

It is interesting to note, now that the National Lottery is twenty years old and that almost every state-subsidised producing theatre in Scotland has, or soon will have, have spanking new lottery-funded structural overhauls, complete with shiny new facades, that these modern glass fronted theatres show us absolutely nothing. Are they to invite us in or to keep us out? The artistic and political nervousness over the constitutional question displayed by Scottish theatres has, as an echo, their architectural desire to disguise themselves as something new while behind the steel and glass they are, one suspects, the same old conservative, cash conscious cultural philistines they have always been.

Pantos are at least honest in their delightful insincerity. Where are the new politics of post-referendum Scotland to be reflected upon or found acted out on the stages of the nation in 2015? If you look through impressive glass frontages and at the advertised Spring seasons of all our producing theatres then the answer you might come up with is “nowhere”. As the UK political establishment falls apart like an old car and the financial system promises to collapse finally like a burned out star, whilst the very machinery of capitalism is literally eating planet Earth, are there really no poets or playwrights who can see over the university wall or beyond the commissioning criteria in order to set this scene before us? One could, on current evidence, conclude that such subjects do not interest them and that they have abandoned language, both scripted and physical, for the preferred option of the pensioned vortex of indifference. Instead of looking outwards my contention is that our theatre writers and producers are looking inwards. It is not only pantomime which has abandoned dramatic narrative. Where are we to dream up our new reality, our new nation and society, if not in our theatres?

It cannot be the case that all our poets and playwrights are cultural philistines as well? The cultural tradition of Scotland demands, you would think, that poetry and the dramatic art require more from those who practise it than the expression of ego and the pursuit of a career, or from their audience that they merely laugh and lick the cones?

A recent study has shown that our glorious political leaders in Westminster, almost to a man, went to boarding school. This private/public school dragoon-like education takes them out of the family structure and removes them from general society, as well as contact with the opposite sex, rendering them, in the main, incapable of displaying human sympathy or grasping the everyday realities of ordinary people going about their lives. In other words they find it difficult to relate other than to those who have had a similar experience. Their “education” has nullified their life-skills, robbed them of spontaneity and humility, installed competition into them above all else and taught them that self-promotion and self-preservation is the primary purpose of life. My contention is that most of our theatres – most of our cultural institutions in Scotland – are managed by such people.

To most people this may not seem important. To some it may seem offensive but, sadly, it is what I see when I look at contemporary cultural Scotland. What it means in reality is that the Scottish people are being denied the theatre they need to develop both psychologically and politically. What it also means is that there is a culture war being waged within this nation between those who produce the art work and those with the power to mount it or bin it. Despite the obvious subjective/objective censorship this system depends upon it also enforces a view of art which is the opposite of reality: all art should be considered a form of participation and its manifestation should not be rendered as a mystery.

As the mass engagement of the referendum campaign so obviously demonstrated the political process can be reclaimed by the majority out of a democratic necessity and by sheer organisation. That theatre is not seen as necessary by the majority of Scots represents the triumph of management over subject and is not an abandonment of need. In these fast moving times we crucially need the dreaming power of theatre more than ever. In these dark days of Winter we may currently, as yet, have no nation but we can dream and dream we shall and our dreams, I believe this more than I believe almost anything else, will come true. When we finally dream our country back into being what exactly, I wonder, will we be looking at when we wake up? Like Segismundo I long for it to be a state of light and gladness.

©George Gunn 2014

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  1. maxi kerr says:

    A bit long winded to get a point across and the heading showed a picture of the NO VOTING Krankies.

  2. Jan Cowan says:

    An interesting and thought – provoking piece of writing. Greatly appreciated.
    Thank you, George.

  3. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Well said, George. We are talking here about control over the conduits of consciousness. I often wonder whether a cultural qualification should be necessary to work in senior roles in the arts, by which I don’t mean qualifications in opera or ballet, but a working awareness of arts that are indigenous to Scotland as well, as desirable extras, experience of the art forms of a wider world including, of course, opera and ballet.

    My French mother in law just sent me Kirsty Gunn’s book, “The Big Music.” At first glance (not read it yet) it’s a quite exceptional study of pibroch in the form of a novel. All credit to London-based Faber for publishing it as it must be a fairly specialised market. One of those books that looks like it shows the mysterious depth to which Scottish culture can carry one, and such is our gift to the world and why we must take care that our culture’s representation – and with it, the impact on collective consciousness – is not confined to those who might think the norms of their social class defines how things should be for everybody else.

  4. George Gunn says:

    Dear Maxi, didn’t mean it to be long winded. My point, I think as Alastair has noted,is quite straight forward.I’m not responsible for the Krankies.

    1. Frank M says:

      Your point was straightforward and well made George. It was understood by me and seems also to have been well appreciated by Jan and Alastair. Power to your elbow.

  5. Darien says:

    A very fine article, thanks.

    “most of our cultural institutions in Scotland – are managed by such people.”

    Yes, and this also applies to universities, to a myriad of quangos, and to much of ‘Establishment’ Scotland.

    Assimilation into the British ‘way’ demands continued discrimination against Scots culture as the cultural norm. To our shame Scots have meekly accepted that norm for generations, and we still do, and to such an extent that many still cannae see it.

    I hope our esteemed Scots Culture Secr. is reading this insightful article.

  6. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Great article and once again speaking truth to power.

  7. Clootie says:

    I’m still traumatised by the poster…so that is what hell looks like!

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