Brecht and panto: Dick Whittington and his critical aesthetics of dialectical materialism

Mother Courage and her ugly sisters? (Rachel Murray, Ross Anderson and Kerri Quinn in Cinderella at Waterfront Hall, Belfast)
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Christmas in Britain is a wonderful time. Weeks of parties and preparations as the doors come off the advent calendars until almost the whole country comes to a standstill on Christmas Day. As a German, this still catches me off guard.

And, of course, it means pantomime, another quintessentially British tradition that is often as startlingly surprising to the unsuspecting foreign visitor as the first bite of Marmite or marmalade.

At this time, theatre lets its hair down, waves goodbye to naturalism and puts on productions that are joyfully and exuberantly alienating to non-Brits. Bertolt Brecht this ain’t.

Brecht at a panto is quite a thought, but maybe the two are not that far apart. Nearly all his elements of ‘epic theatre’ are there: smashing the fourth wall, narration, cross-gender casting, music, songs, slapstick, clowning, improvisation, topical references, and subversion. This is all presented in the most vivid format, with an atmosphere like that at boxing matches, which Brecht so desired to emulate with his theatre for the people.

Is it time to rediscover Brecht plays as pantomimes? I would love to see Brecht given the full panto treatment, even if it would be theatrical Marmite.

Okay, so maybe British pantomime’s aim is not to stir the audience into political action and revolution; it’s more a carnivalesque diversion as the year comes to a close.

I am often struck by the differences between British and German theatre, how different the approach is, how different its function in society is. But the great thing about stories and art is that they show how similar we all are in our needs, weaknesses and aspirations. Sometimes, these stories and the way they are told have universal appeal and can be understood by everyone. Sometimes a story might be universal but the way it is presented is like a local dialect – only intelligible to the initiated.

It strikes me that far from being a peculiar British eccentricity, pantomimes are a hotbed of theatrical invention taking in the best of European tradition. They combine elements from commedia dell’arte, masques and music hall and trace their roots back to classical theatre where the pantomimos was the actor (mimos) who played all (panto) parts – just like a Homeric singer or a narrator.

Which brings me back to Brecht, who is still a towering figure in German theatre, an art form that remains essentially political. It overwhelmingly seeks to reveal what is wrong in society and think about ways of changing and improving it.

The message may be different but the toolkit of many radical avantgarde productions in Germany is not that different from that employed in pantomime. What looks like a strange local dialect actually turns out to be a universal language. Maybe the time really has come to think of Brecht’s plays as pantomimes.

Martin Oelbermann’s production of The Little Prince is at the Playground Theatre, London, December 15-January