Has panto become culturally inappropriate, racist even? Oh yes it has, calls out Daniel York.

Production shot - two actors with nets
Getting it right: Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Rapunzel managed to be fast, fun and rude without crossing the line into cultural insensitivity
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Scott Rylander

A friend recently attended Aladdin with his niece at a regional theatre and was shocked and upset by the sight of Caucasian cast members in ‘yellowface’ – full-on Chinese costumes and make-up. Like me, my friend is of Chinese descent.

Are we actually arguing that racist jokes and reducing other races to exotic fancy-dress costume is wholesome entertainment…?

Another Asian friend of mine walked out of another production of Aladdin in a different regional theatre because he felt the content was racist. He was even targeted from the stage as he was leaving the theatre – he and his young son were the only non-white people in the audience.

The argument that might be used to defend both these instances is that the pantos in question were catering for a majority white audience, so why should they be constrained by political correctness? But that’s a strange one. Are we actually arguing that racist jokes and reducing other races to exotic fancy-dress costume is wholesome entertainment for Caucasian families in the British provinces?

Taking on panto

As a British East Asian theatre artist and chair of Equity’s Minority Ethnic Members committee, I’ve campaigned long and hard against yellowface and for better, more inclusive opportunities for, and portrayals of, East Asians in British theatre. But I have always stopped short of taking on panto. The oft-used sledgehammer argument is that the genre is meant to be offensive. However, on Wikipedia only ‘mild sexual innuendo’ is listed as a staple ingredient along with buffoonery, slapstick, recurring scenes that may have no relevance to the plot, topical jokes and cross-dressing.

But this comes so recently after watching Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Rapunzel, which managed to be fast, fun, bold and rude in a truly exhilarating and riotously joyous fashion, without ever once crossing the line into cultural insensitivity.

Around Christmas time as well, backbench Conservative MP Nadine Dorries took it upon herself to tweet an astonishing broadside at “left wing snowflakes… killing comedy” and “dumbing down panto”. Chris McCrudden pointed out that the pantos Nadine would remember from her childhood were locally produced community events but the funding was cut in the 1980s by the Thatcher government.

The demand for annual panto is still there but the production costs are prohibitive, so it is often outsourced to commercial companies who roll out the same ‘flatpack’ pantos all over the country. In fact, the local references are often reduced to a passing mention of the nearest football team. So much for the preservation of tradition.

Indeed, it’s hard to ascertain just what culture the likes of Nadine are so bent on preserving against PC snowflakes. Do they wish to see more traditional renderings of pantos based more firmly on the roots of the artform in Roman dumbshow, English Mummers’ play folk tales and commedia dell’arte? A reversal to the more formal harlequinade renditions?

It might also be worth mentioning that English panto developed in an era between the 1660 Restoration and the Theatres Act 1843 where, aside from a few ‘patent’ theatres, spoken drama was banned from the British stage. So much for the land of free expression. The great panto clown actor, Joseph Grimaldi (who died in depressed alcoholic penury), is celebrated for many things – his clown make-up and his catchphrase “Here we are again!” among them. Funnily though, I can’t find any fond recall of him dressed in Chinoiserie and telling racist jokes.

Panto for the future

Of all theatrical genres, panto should be the most fluid and vibrant, as its history has proven. It’s surely beyond getting stuck in a defensive bog of racial stigmatisation. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think the panto dame is offensive. Women are not caricatured or rendered invisible by a comic actor in (very obvious) drag.

In fact, a recent attack in a London train station on a gay man who had the temerity to wear a dress in public would probably illustrate that this is actually still quite subversive. Don’t get me wrong, we probably shouldn’t see any more male Lady Bracknells at the moment, but the cross-dressing in panto is very much part of the fun (although I stand to be corrected if women tell me they find this offensive).

Nobody’s looking to dumb down panto. By acknowledging and taking into account the cultural melting pot that is modern Britain, I would argue that we’re asking it to be more appreciative of complex racial and societal nuance.

And for those who think this is preaching, most pantos are based on fairy and folk tales that generally finish with a moral of the story. So you’re always being preached at.

Daniel York (Daniel York Loh) is an actor, writer, filmmaker and musician.
E: billyaustin55@hotmail.com

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