Once upon a time, when life was perhaps less complicated, but certainly harder, troupes of travelling actors brought relief from the daily grind by performing plays in the courtyards of inns. The hostelry would have been built around the yard, so that people could watch the play from the windows of rooms, or from the galleries or balconies, as well as from ground level in the yard.
Early theatres, built in Elizabethan times, were modelled on this pattern – the audience surrounded the players, and those who stood in the pit were right next to the action, and frequently commented upon it. The audience needed some imagination, and the script told them about the setting, for there were no artificial lights, precious little scenery, and few props. But the arrival in town of a travelling troupe was an exciting event, and the plays had an exhilarating immediacy and a refreshing take on events or stories that were at least partially familiar to those watching.
This, then, was the environment that Shakespeare grew up in. When he first started acting in and writing plays, it was for this sort of circumstance. And yet, nowadays, Shakespearean plays are so often something other, high literature that requires study to understand. Those that act them are the wisest and greatest of their profession, far removed from the lesser mortals that watch them. The subject matter, the language, and the learned air of the interpreters, all serve to distance the play from us. Many people are daunted by this aura of high culture, and hardly dare attend a performance of Shakespeare.
And this is where The Pantaloons come in. They take the intimidation out of high literature, without dumbing it down, or messing with the intentions of the playwright. I’ve seen them perform two Shakespeare plays, and they bring back the refreshing immediacy that is so often missing from culture. They keep Shakespeare’s words, but they bring them to life, addressing some of their words to the audience with an engagement that is missing from the high stages and public-school delivery of the pedestal-placed performances of art theatre.
I have chosen to write about them today, because I have just been to see them put on “The Importance of being Ernest”, and I was reflecting on what exactly made their performance so exhilaratingly different. Partly it’s the location – they often set up in outdoor venues of some interest; in this case in front of the ruins in Nymans Gardens. There’s also the lack of pretention: with no vast stage sets and no backstage to hide in, everything is on show, and the actors have to conjure up the ballroom, the morning room, or the carriage ride. This requires a consummate professionalism, as the actors use a brief gesture, a look, or a movement, to make clear what would otherwise require unwieldy scenery and numerous props.
But there’s more than this. It is clear that every member of The Pantaloons thoroughly enjoys what they do. I believe that it is this that adds the sparkle and vibrancy that they bring to their performances, and ensures their audience is enthralled from start to finish, and determined to make the trek, however long, to see their next production.
I don’t suppose that it’s very easy to be an itinerant player, and I suspect that most people who embark on this sort of lifestyle have to have a “day job” as well, at least to start with, and sacrifice other things to answer the demands that such an undertaking makes on their time. But when we live authentically, when we make life choices that are right for us, we gain something far more valuable than the things we give up. So, thank you, Pantaloons, not just for presenting a scintillating and refreshing interpretation of a favourite play, but also for prompting me to renew my commitment to living my own life the way it was meant to be.