Last update: 07-Dec-2013 3:12 am
Saturday, December 07, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Plenty action in this Pantomime
On the opening night of Brenda Hughes’s wonderful directorial debut of Derek Walcott’s sublime Pantomime, during the final emotionally charged lines, an earthquake—6.4 on the Richter scale—shook the Little Carib theatre.
The rumbling began as hotelier Harry Trewe (played by Maurice Brash) delivered the line, “An angel passes through a house and leaves no imprint of his shadow on its wall.” The reverberations lasted for 16 seconds. The audience murmured in some consternation, and some got up ready to leave. The play was nearly over. This was the aftershock of a staggering two hours of theatre.
The initial seismic shock hits you early in the first act as the relationship between Englishman Trewe and his Trinidadian employee, handyman Jackson Phillip (played by Michael Cherrie) nosedives from jocular to hostile. The ripple effect of Phillip’s anger—300 years in the making—at being asked to perform a clownish pantomime by his boss turns into a torrent, a tsunami of clinically controlled aggression released upon Trewe.
“In the sun that never set on your empire, I was your shadow. That was my pantomime. Every movement you made I was your shadow,” Phillip says, half-ranting, half-educating his rather hapless, yet seemingly happy-go-lucky boss.
The two are stuck, both physically and metaphorically, under a gazebo at a guesthouse in Tobago, out of season and closed for repairs. The set, designed by Chadd Cumberbatch from Montserrat, perfectly resembles the crumbling terrace of a hotel looking out to sea, cluttered with plants, rickety furniture and spades. It creates an exacting amount of claustrophobia—one of the emotions that consumes the pair, this odd couple.
In Walcott’s script, a masterful comedy despite the often merciless vitriol both characters express, Trewe is, symbolically, master. Phillip symbolises servitude, slavery. More pointedly, the pairing are Robinson Crusoe and his manservant, the obedient and humble Friday, metaphorically shipwrecked and playing out roles that satisfy neither. They don’t resent each other, they resent the history that has trapped them in place.
Pantomime was written in 1978, when racial oppression was still a global problem (apartheid, race riots, Black Power revolutions, the rise of nationalism and neo-nazism, before the dawn of enlightenment that must, one supposes, have kicked in some time in the 1990s). Walcott later rewrote it, and Hughes describes the language in this version as “more elaborate, more seductive and evocative.”
The puns come thick and fast—blink and you’ll miss them. They show a rare talent in dark humour (I’ll refrain from saying “black comedy.”) The talking parrot which Trewe insists is not racist but was simply owned by a German called Herr Heinegger, of whom he was so fond he repeats his homophonically unfortunate surname repeatedly and loudly, to the despair of Phillip, is comedically delicious.
What occurs throughout the two acts of this play is essentially role reversal. As Walcott explores the legacy of colonisation in a post-colonial world. the power balance shifts. Trewe starts off a jovial character who simply wants to recreate his youth (poignant since Brash played Trewe in 1978, the first production of the play in the same theatre) by staging a light-hearted Christmas panto. His approach to life appears to be: never take it too seriously. Jokes abound.
Phillip first appears to be a more serious man, troubled by things in his past and not given to tomfoolery. Trewe tries to get him to lighten up but fails.
Apparently humiliated by the suggestion of performing—which he sees as a continuation of a “yes, massa,” set-up—Phillip (a retired calypsonian) turns the tables on Trewe. He subverts the pantomime, alters it to suit the point he wants to make and creates a kind of alter-ego that disturbs Trewe’s liberal sensibilities by pointedly exposing the offensiveness or sheer lunacy of what he is proposing. The slapstick routine stretches his boss’s patience and he snaps. Suddenly it’s not fun any more.
Once the tables have fully turned, it’s Phillip’s job to take on a different role as comforter.
“You’re a kind man and you think you have to hide it,” Trewe chides him.
And there’s the point. Underlying the post-colonial commentary of the play is a more universal human truth that Walcott wants you to see. That loneliness, sorrow and tragedy affect us all and that our own personal (as well as ancestral) histories can dictate our emotional responses.
I am half-English, half-Jamaican. Part European, part Caribbean. White and black. A mixture, like Walcott. And as such this play moved me deeply. Seeing two men, each representing one half of my heritage, going at each other, fleshing out who they are and where their two races have ended up, achieving reconciliation, was both comforting and unsettling. It is a play about social roles, pantomimes. Black people, powerful yet history’s perpetual “victims,” aware of the shame their forebears were subjected to and determined to be proud. White people, history’s perpetual victors, though vulnerable, uncertain, occasionally ashamed when faced with people whose antecedents were their ancestors’ victims. While the British upper lip quivers in the modern world, its stiffness is, in this play, transferred to the people of its former colonies.
The acting of Cherrie and Brash is sensational. Brash’s English accent is flawless and his Johnnie Walker-inspired unravelling towards the end is sad yet hilarious.
Cherrie’s comic timing is perfect, the audience savoured every line, relishing the ones they knew were coming and soaking up his buffoonery. Rehearsals began back in July and this production, the end result of months of hard work, must be immensely satisfying even for these experienced and accomplished actors.
Pantomime is running at the Little Carib, White Street, Woodbrook until October 20.
• Tickets are available from the box office (622-4644) or from Paper Based Bookshop, Normandie Hotel, St Ann’s (625-3197).
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