The Entire Company
My submission for the current Prose Challenge: An exploration of the normally unseen frenzy of creative passion, torment and struggle required of any team of thespians that dedicates itself to the creation of great theatre.
‘I’m sorry I’m late.’ Under the admiring gaze of the male attendees Laura took off her coat and hung it carelessly on the back of the only empty chair. They waited for her to sit down.
Daniel spoke for the group. ‘It’s okay. We haven’t really started yet. All we’ve done is have a quick vote on which one we want to do.’
‘We should have waited for you,’ Thomas chipped in.
‘No. Really. I don’t mind what one we do. I’ll go along with the group decision.’
‘Well, you are a bit central to it,’ Daniel went on. ‘We thought we’d like to do Cinderella – with you in the title role.’
A faint smile made her presence even more enchanting for the men folk. ‘Me?’
‘Can you think of anyone better?’
Her smile became somewhat sheepish as she scanned the faces of the other four women. ‘That’s very sweet of you. Any of us could do the part. But if I’m the one you want I’ll do my best, of course.’
‘Okay then,’ Daniel announced decisively and with obvious satisfaction. ‘We do Cinderella and Laura is our female lead. Now, who would like to be the Wicked Stepmother?’
There was a pause as all the men followed Laura’s lead in scanning the faces of the remaining females. None of them seemed eager to take the part.
‘In many ways,’ Daniel continued in a conversational tone that sounded a little forced, ‘evil characters are more satisfying to play than good ones. I mean, far be it from me to offer a feminist analysis, but the two most powerful women in this piece are the Wicked Stepmother and the Fairy Godmother. Cinderella is a relatively passive character. Without the Fairy Godmother she would spend the rest of her days slaving away for her stepmother and the Ugly Sisters. In fact the Wicked Stepmother is the most dynamic character of all. She doesn’t need magic, or a husband, or royal connections either for that matter. Her power comes from her own personality. She’s like…’
‘Maggie Thatcher,’ Thomas suggested.
‘Do you mind?’ It was Phyllis, the bank manager’s wife. ‘We have always voted Conservative. We make no secret of it. Mrs. Thatcher came to power at a time when this country had been brought to its knees by the trade unions and the benefit scroungers. I resent the implication that she was some kind of power-hungry ogre. A strong woman leader is always condemned and demonised by the press and everyone else, while a strong male leader is admired and respected. Margaret Thatcher was one of the two finest prime ministers that this country has ever had. The other one was Winston Churchill.’
‘Quite right, Phyllis,’ Daniel assured her. ‘A truly great political figure. Thomas was using her as an example of power and confidence in a woman – strength of personality – not of wickedness. Weren’t you, Thomas?’
‘Yes, Daniel. Of course that’s what I meant.’
It was Marcel who spoke next. Daniel frowned, knowing how much he enjoyed baiting Phyllis.
‘All the same, it would be a great twist if the Wicked Stepmother played the part as Maggie. Used her voice and that. People would love it, wouldn’t they?’
Daniel had to jump in quickly to avert disaster. ‘This isn’t political satire, Marcel. And it wouldn’t mean a thing to the children. Quite a lot of the young mums and dads wouldn’t get it either. Now please don’t make mischief. We’re here to put on a straightforward pantomime, mainly for the under-tens but not leaving adults out entirely. Okay?’
‘Hmmm, not leaving adults out entirely? Okay. Here’s another idea. Non political. At the ball, when Cinderella wins Prince Charming’s heart by dancing with him – how about, instead of dancing with him she throws off her dress and she’s got a tiny bikini underneath and does a bit of pole dancing instead? That would win my heart all right!’
The room immediately burst into loud disarray. Laura wriggled uncomfortably in her chair. Daniel had to shout to recover the situation. ‘Now that’s quite enough, Marcel! We can all take a joke but that was unpleasant and you knew perfectly well it would offend and upset some of the people here. I’m sorry but if you’re going to take that attitude I’ll be forced to ask you to leave.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Keep your hair on. Just my little joke. Aren’t we’re all a bit bloody serious for people supposed to be putting on a pantomime?’
‘There’s nothing in theatre more serious than comedy.’ The remark came from a lean and callow young man who was attending for the first time. Daniel couldn’t remember his name.
‘Very trite… I mean true,’ said Marcel, at last getting the laugh he so urgently craved. The storm seemed to have passed.
Daniel clearly needed a rest. He shot an appealing glance at Thomas, which the latter correctly interpreted as a plea to take over. He smiled genially as he stepped in. ‘So, ladies and gentlemen, or rather ladies in this case, could we return to the question of casting the Wicked Stepmother?’
It was Veronica, a rather intense social worker, still wearing her grey ultra-respectable business suit and with her laptop propped against her feet, who was next to speak. ‘You know, it’s interesting to look at the underlying factors that produce an individual like the Wicked Stepmother. A need to control and humiliate others is bound to be rooted in a childhood in which she herself was controlled and humiliated. There’s no reason why we couldn’t incorporate a few flashbacks to her childhood and teenage years and show some of the roots of her controlling behaviour. One or two interactions with her own parents, perhaps, or an early and unhappy love affair…’
Marcel seemed to view this suggestion as a personal insult. He got to his feet this time to add emphasis to his protest. ‘For Pete’s sake! Are we going to listen to this crap from her? I get shouted down for a perfectly sensible suggestion, that we add a bit of comedy by doing the Wicked Stepmother in the style of an immediately recognisable public figure, and you tell me it’s too adult for a pantomime. Now she wants to include some kind of half-baked Freudian analysis that nobody without a psychology degree’s going to understand? Which of us is crazy here?’
Thomas was clearly a bit flustered. He glanced back at Daniel who refused to make eye contact. ‘Marcel, I can understand your objection to Veronica’s suggestion but I have to insist that you state it calmly and politely like everybody else. We’re not going to get anywhere by shouting at one another.’ He stared at Marcel and waited until he sat down. ‘I appreciate your contribution, Veronica, and we’re here to come up with general ideas and consider them calmly and sensibly. In my opinion your suggestion would be too great a departure from the normal pantomime format and wouldn’t go down well with the kind of audience who would come to see it. Maybe we should have a show of hands. Is there anybody here who thinks that Veronica’s suggestion is something we ought to pursue?’
After a few moments of silence Marcel was the one who raised his hand. Thomas’ shoulders slumped. ‘Yes, Marcel?’
‘You know, maybe I was a bit hasty. Maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. What if we did the whole show as a sort of skit on those TV programmes where a load of po-faced experts analyse some stupid little nursery rhyme or what-not and talk rubbish about it in highfalutin academic gibberish? Imagine we had a narrator introducing each section – Veronica herself could do it – who sets up each scene and then when it’s over gives us some half-baked theory about it like she did just then. It could be bloody funny! We could call it “Cinderella on the Couch.”’ Veronica glared at him but did not reply.
It was Callow Youth who took up the debate. ‘I don’t think that was a very sensible suggestion but there’s no reason why we can’t reinterpret the play. We could come up with something that keeps enough of the traditional story to carry the children along but makes some serious points aimed at the adults as well. It could become a parable. I mean, isn’t Prince Charming very similar to a loving God who rescues us from all the nastiness and injustice of the world and welcomes us to a life of everlasting happiness with him in heaven? Heaven could be the beautiful palace – we could make it look a bit like a cathedral. And the Fairy Godmother who gives her the vehicle to get there, she could be grace. Grace that leads us along the straight and righteous path to the palace of redemption. Maybe she could be an angel instead of a fairy. I think it could work, although of course I haven’t thought it through completely.’
‘Damn right you haven’t,” Marcel muttered loudly enough for all to hear.
Daniel decided that Thomas had taken enough punishment and re-entered the fray. ‘No, I’m sorry…what was your name again?”
‘Oh, Michael, like the archangel…’ The simile produced a ripple of laughter and Daniel regretted that he had said it. ‘I don’t think we can tie the production to any one religious tradition. After all we could have Muslims in the audience, Hindus, Jews…’
‘Zoroastrians,’ Marcel suggested.
‘No, I think Zoroastrians are fairly unlikely,’ Veronica countered with a perfectly straight face.
‘Anyway,’ Daniel said with finality, ‘any kind of religious content or allusion is much more likely to alienate sections of the audience than please anybody. I suggest we avoid both politics and religion. This isn’t the National Theatre putting on a newly-discovered Terence Rattigan. This is Crouch End ADS doing Cinderella in the church hall.’
‘But there you are,’ said Michael with a note of triumph, ‘You’ve got the religious connection already.’
Daniel ignored the remark.
‘Now come along everyone. We’ve got a task to complete this evening. When we leave here we need to know what pantomime we’re doing and who’s going to be playing each of the parts. It isn’t a complicated thing. If we can’t reach a consensus by discussion I’m going to have to step in as the Director and allocate parts so that we can move on. I don’t want to do that, I want casting to be a voluntary group decision.’
‘Isn’t that an oxymoron?’ Marcel objected. ‘If it’s a group decision it isn’t voluntary. It can only be one or the other.’
‘I mean a democratic decision.’ Daniel’s patience was wearing thin. ‘Everybody here knows perfectly well what I mean.’
‘He’s right in a way,’ Veronica put in, to Daniel’s amazement. ‘A democratic decision is different in kind to a voluntary decision. There are different kinds of democracy of course. The most extreme form would be consensus democracy. With that model everyone without exception would have to agree before a decision could be taken. That would make the concepts of voluntary decision and group decision compatible.’
Daniel exhaled and closed his eyes for a moment. ‘All right. I don’t like formal meetings but I think we’ve reached an impasse here. I’m going to ask for a formal nomination for the role of Wicked Stepmother.’
Marcel was quick to jump in. ‘I nominate Phyllis.’
‘Fine. Do we have a seconder?’ Several hands went up. ‘Very good. Are there any other nominations?’ Silence. ‘The decision’s made then. The role of Wicked Stepmother will be played by Phyllis. Do we want any further discussion about that?’
Phyllis herself spoke up. ‘What’s the point of further discussion if the decision has been made?’
Daniel hesitated but seemed unable to think of a sensible answer.
‘Are we all allowed to make proposals at this meeting?’
It was Laura who spoke, and Daniel knew perfectly well that he wouldn’t get away with refusing her whatever she asked for. ‘Of course,’ he said with ill-concealed affection, ‘do go ahead.’
‘Well, I wasn’t here when the decision was made to do Cinderella, and for me to play the title role, and although I agreed to it I didn’t have time to think about it, and I don’t feel very comfortable about it really. I don’t know if the message it gives out to young girls, or young boys for that matter, is a very good one. It seems to say that pretty people are good and ugly people are bad, and that finding a high status husband is all that matters for a woman, and that men do everything that matters in the world and women are just there to be their side-kicks and keep them satisfied in bed.’
The room fell to total silence. Daniel knew that his Waterloo had come.
‘So, what’s your proposal?’ he asked in a low and trembling tone.
‘I think we should do something that isn’t based on bad attitudes and bad ideas that belong to the past. Things that we should be trying to leave behind. We should do a panto that doesn’t reinforce stereotypes or make girls feel bad about themselves. Something that questions assumptions and liberates.’
The reverence with which Laura’s views were received by her predominantly male audience was palpable. ‘And what pantomime is that?’ he urged.