Buffoonery and slapstick for Christmas

The Maltese panto is the only theatrical show that attracts sizable audience every Christmas. TEODOR RELJIC discovers why.

Alan Montanaro in his staple role as MADC's Dame. Photo by Jacob Sammut.
Alan Montanaro in his staple role as MADC's Dame. Photo by Jacob Sammut.

Panto is the only theatrical production to draw in a substantial profit on the island. That, at least, is the case for the 'big two' Christmas pantomimes taking place over the holiday season, which this year means MADC's Princess and the Pea - for which Alan Montanaro will return as The Dame at the MFCC, Ta' Qali and Fm Theatre's Ali Baba at the more traditional Manoel Theatre venue in Valletta.

Indeed, not only does the spirit of pantomime carry echoes of Malta's colonial past - British comedian and actor Hugh Laurie described it as a 'Victorian hangover' to American audiences - but its enduring success is also symptomatic of the way theatre is consumed in Malta: it's a show for the whole family, and its humour is writ large.

As Dr Marco Galea, senior lecturer in Theatre Studies, succinctly puts it: "Panto has been for decades practically the only theatrical activity that Maltese families can enjoy together. Its different levels of meaning make it an enjoyable experience for theatregoers of all ages."

Joy in tradition

That panto strikes a chord with a large number of audiences is hardly incidental. One key element to their enduring popularity is the judicious use of universal source material. Just look at the titles of this year's big pantos. The Princess and the Pea - a Western fairy tale known to most of us as a bedtime story; Ali Baba - a slice of the Arabian Nights coming from another part of the globe, but just as popular thanks to countless re-imaginings. Like Disney at their finest, pantomimes have learnt to incorporate stories that make us tick, and that have a wide reach.

Unlike Disney, however, pantomime comes laced with a subtle - or not-so-subtle - layer of sexual innuendo and political satire.

Alan Meadows - a panto veteran since the early 80s - describes the panto as a hodgepodge of various theatrical genres.

"Panto has survived the test of time by constantly adapting to include the trends and topicality of the moment; weaving these into the traditional until these become part of the tradition. It is a mixture of buffoonery, slapstick, in-jokes, song and dance and audience participation, and it plays on two levels that are divided by a very thin line."

But for all its colourful chaos, panto is held together by an often rigidly-adhered-to plot structure, and audiences know precisely which characters to root for, and at which they are to boo. And while The Dame (i.e., a male actor in drag who normally helps spice up the plot and acts as erstwhile compère for the night) always attracts the most attention, she is usually peripheral to the story itself, which is centred around the Principal Boy/Girl and the Co-Principal (usually a Prince/Princess duo) who are pitted against a Baddie, generally flanked by a couple of dim-witted sidekicks who help to cause mischief for our protagonists.

The Dame - more often than not the Principal's mother - acts as a buffer between the story and the audience, helping out our protagonists in their quest while passing lewd and/or satirical comments throughout.

Another key element of the panto's ensemble is The Chorus. Previously, its role was to simply jazz up the proceedings with some filler music, but according to Meadows, "this has now changed."

"The chorus is the glue that keeps the entire show together. You can consider the ensemble to be a principal character - singing, dancing and acting out cameo parts. Their high energy keeps the tempo going and contributes to the extravaganza of the show."

These elements, coupled with the fact that audiences are invited to 'participate' in the story (either by booing the baddies and helping to direct the protagonists in the right path; or simply by being picked out by the Dame for a spot of public humiliation), help to make the panto a directly immersive experience for all involved.

So it may be surprising to consider that panto in Malta was not always a treat for the masses.

'The water incident'

"In the 80s, panto was thought of as being somewhat elitist - tal-pepe, so to speak - but that myth has thankfully been blown away for good," Alan Montanaro said when talking about the many changes local panto has undergone ever since it first burst onto the local scene in 1911, when a very young MADC put up a production of Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp at the Manoel Theatre.

A defining episode actually occurred in 1985, which helped to re-shape the public's perception of the genre, and that subsequently helped tickets to skyrocket. During a production of MADC's Robinson Crusoe, Alan Meadows's Dame - Queen Vulgaria, "the local equivalent of Mrs Bucket" - made a joke about the stench emanating from a member of the audience and commented that they must have been from Sliema... a crack at the frequent water problems the area had been afflicted with at the time.

A high-ranking government official did not take kindly to the barb, and responded by hurling insults at Meadows's sexuality. To this, Meadows responded with "Oh, so you recognised me!" - which only made matters worse, with the official nearly hurling a chair in Meadows's direction (though up until that point, the audience was convinced that this spontaneous drama was simply part of the whole act).

"From that day onwards, the panto has always played to a full house," Meadows said.

"That incident was possibly one of the best adverts for the genre in Malta," Montanaro added. "After that, everybody wanted to see what panto was about. And they learned that 'hang on - this is fun. It's not so elitist after all!"

The power of panto

Thanks to its popularity, panto is very much an up-market affair, by local standards. While Montanaro still laments losing the Manoel Theatre as MADC's staple venue - see interview on pages 22 and 23 - due to a tussle between MADC and rival company Masquerade in 2007, he also welcomes the more spacious MFCC, which apart from being able to seat a larger crowd, is also free of any "snobbish" associations that the Manoel may suffer from.

And rival Dame Edward Mercieca - who also wrote this year's Ali Baba - notes that, generally speaking, "the 'spectacular' element of the panto has increased and improved phenomenally".

Being Malta's prime spectacle comes with a number of perks... one of which is the ability to actually funnel money into other, less lucrative productions throughout the theatrical year.

"Panto attracts a very wide audience, which is in itself a good thing, as companies producing it can invest profits in other theatrical productions which will not make money," Galea said, a fact that was confirmed by former MADC Artistic Director Adrian Buckle.

"After last year's panto, MADC embarked on a season that featured non-commercial plays of various kinds: Osama The Hero, Mrs Warren's Profession, Twelfth Night and The Bacchae. All of these productions made a loss but they were amply supported by the success of Scrooge," Buckle said.

But over and above the financial returns that the pantos are set to rake in this year, Prof. Paul Sant Cassia - Anthropology Coordinator in the Mediterranean Institute at the University of Malta - maintains a steadfast belief in the ability of panto to transport us to a magical realm.

"The pantomime is ultimately about the power of imagination in imagining (and realising even for a brief moment) a world without power... a world where smallness is heaven, rather than the hell of Sartre's 'huis clos', a world therefore where everything is possible."