Does panto break through the linguistic divide?

Christmas may be over but the local pantomimes are still going strong – in both Maltese and English

Jungle Fever: Teatru Rjal have chosen Tarzan for this year's production at The Catholic Institute
Jungle Fever: Teatru Rjal have chosen Tarzan for this year's production at The Catholic Institute

After the hectic Christmas season, many of us may already be feeling the onset of January blues - that quietly depressing time of year when the resumption of mundane toil hurts all the more as it comes straight after the festive season.

But a glimmer of Christmas joy remains, in the form of Malta's bestselling theatre outing: the panto. As actor, writer and Dame extraordinaire Alan Montanaro said: "In the words of a lady who once wrote to thank me personally, [panto] is the only source of entertainment where "four generations of her family" come together without any fights or arguments."

And it is perhaps mostly due to its nature as a family show that all four of the main pantos playing this year have, like previous years, spilled over from the Christmas season, and will continue to play right until mid-January.

MADC's The Princess and the Pea will be playing at the MFCC, Ta' Qali until 8 January, along with its English-language counterpart, FM Theatre's Ali Baba at the Manoel Theatre, Valletta. They are accompanied by another two Maltese-language productions: Bronk's Snow White u s-7 Deputati (playing at Sur Temi Zammit Hall, University until 8 January) and Teatru Rjal's Tarzan mal-erbat irjieh (playing at The Catholic Institute, Floriana until 21 January).

Running since 2001 at The Catholic Institute, Teatru Rjal's production remains a benchmark for Maltese-language pantomimes - traditionally a genre that is more-English-than-English, given its Victorian roots, and the fact that it was bequeathed to the Maltese under Britsh colonial rule (the first ever local pantomime was staged by MADC in 1911).

Prof. Vicki Ann Cremona, Malta's Ambassador to Tunisia and Associate Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Malta, finds the bi-lingual state of the Maltese panto somewhat "perplexing":

"We have chosen to adapt a typically English theatrical performance to a Maltese reality, rather than improving on our own comic theatre (such as improving our own 'farsa')... the idea that rather than create, we adapt and imitate, would certainly be a subject for research.

"Another interesting feature is that panto at the Manoel has taken on its own characteristics - firstly, the political satire, which is nowhere as heavy in any English panto - and also the characters who mix Maltese with English. This language mixing is always a sign of 'hamallu' - no prince or heroine will mix Maltese with English."

Panto veteran and former MADC Dame Alan Meadows traces back a brief history of the said 'language-mixing' to reveal that it evolved along with the shifting panto audiences.

"The first Maltese pantos at the Catholic Institute were a spin off from - or rather, followed - the MADC Christmas panto in English at the Manoel Theatre and these two shows catered for two separate audiences," Meadows said.

Part of what makes panto so special is the element of very real audience interaction, so it's inevitable that a particular kind of audience will shape a show in a particular way. Whether the class rift between the English and Maltese pantos was genuine or merely a result of preconceptions, Meadows believes that it helped shape the content of the shows in a very direct way.

"The English ones were followed mainly by a middle class audience, and most of the localised skits were originally pointed at the middle class. It was a way of making fun of middle class norms and attitudes. This developed further as social classes expanded and merged as Malta became less of a class driven society," Meadows said.

What followed was a less black-and-white affair which, instead of poking fun at social classes wholesale, instead began to make fun of pretentious people - particularly the 'nouveau riche' - across the board. 

"This saw the introduction of more 'Malglish-isms' - a potpourri of English and Maltese common expressions and idioms mixed together. This goes down well with the ever expanding audiences," Meadows said.

Cremona is slightly more sceptical about the local panto's ability to bridge social divisions.

"Does it really bridge social divisions? I am not so sure - or if it does, it is through the need to be identified with a social group of a certain level. Because of this, and because it is practically the only theatre performance where families can go to, and because it is deemed fashionable to go, then people go. No other theatre caters for such a 'mass' (albeit select) public, where all can derive enjoyment from the performance at different levels," Cremona said.

Pawlu Testa, the producer of Teatru Rjal's Catholic Institute panto, is however unambiguous in his belief that one shouldn't read too much into the local panto language divide.

"While panto is traditionally an English genre, I've always believed that a Maltese panto would find a steady audience. Well, time has proven me right, as the Catholic Institute panto is one of the leading pantos on the island," Testa said, while brushing off the idea that there is any form of social distinction between those who prefer to watch the panto in either language.

"The audience is a unified whole. It's just that some people would rather go watch the panto in English, while others prefer to watch it in Maltese... and I've also known of a few who enjoy going to both. At the end of the day, I think it's simply a matter of personal taste," Testa said.