The Pantomime Theatre 3 Photo Tivoli

Copenhagen is home to one of Denmark’s tiniest and yet most famous theatres, the Tivoli Gardens Pantomime Theatre. Many of the nation’s leading ballet dancers and even the Queen herself have shared their artistic talents with the world at this enchanted chinoise theatre with its unique tradition for silent theatre.

By Ellen Dahl

Tivoli Gardens has always had a pantomime theatre. When the Gardens first opened back in 1843, the Tivoli Pantomime Theatre was little more than a modest wooden stage with painted canvas covering. Thirty years later, the then ramshackle playhouse gave way to the chinoise theatre we know today, which was designed by in-house Tivoli Gardens architect Vilhelm Dahlerup. He developed the famous peacock drop curtain, which is inspired by a design the then director of the gardens, Bernhard Olsen, had encountered in Paris.   The Tivoli Pantomime Theatre is an open-air theatre in the sense that audiences sit or stand in the open while watching performances on a closed stage. The sets are in the baroque tradition with painted backdrops and wing pieces to add the sense of visual depth and perspective. The theatre has no stage tower so backdrops are folded in three when hoisted into the rigging loft. Set changes can be made swiftly since each backdrop and wing piece is individually supported with crossbeams and cord drives. It takes five stagehands to operate the peacock drop curtain: two to pull the corners, two to fold the tail, and one to lower the peacock’s head into the basement using a crank. There are 8-12 stagehands backstage during performances.


The forbidden word

The Tivoli pantomime tradition derives from 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte where actors – both women and men – were identified by masks and would represent stereotypical characters – also known as stock characters – such as a young lover, a father, a cunning servant, a dim-witted servant, etc. The plays had rough storylines – or scenarios – but no fixed dialogue or stage directions. Stage activity was semi-improvised yet each player would know his or her role. Excerpts of dialogue and acrobatics acts could be employed at whim, although a certain level of rehearsal would naturally be necessary in acts that either involved many actors or where punches were thrown, lest they harm themselves. These well-rehearsed comical acts – both dialogue and acrobatics – were called *lazzi*.   When a commedia dell’arte troupe arrived at a venue they would convert their back wagon into a stage using two upright poles and a curtain. They would then decide on a scenario and set the stage for whirlwind comedy. The stories were very imaginative and often centred on abductions to far-away lands, weddings with swashbuckling Turks, dashed attempts at liberty and acts of heroism. The characters were heroic noblemen, lovers and simple provincial servants. And there was always an old man – a merchant, soldier or doctor – who would be a bit of a braggart and womaniser. All this ensured that plays would feature high poetry, comedy, satire and sex.   The immense popularity of commedia dell’arte posed a threat to existing theatres, and these would go to great lengths to bar competition. The established theatres of Paris insisted that the spoken word and singing could only be performed on stage by them and this is why some aspects of commedia dell’arte passed into the silent tradition of mime – a tradition that still holds sway in Tivoli Gardens, give or take a few cracks from the slapsticks.

Tivoli lovebirds

Pantomime became established in Denmark in 1800, when the families Price from England and Casorti from Italy made Denmark their home. Until that time only travelling foreign troupes had performed. The oldest son of the Casorti family, Giuseppe Casorti, became one of the nation’s leading comedians and still lends his name to the Tivoli pantomime repertoire, the so-called *casortian* plays.   The commedia dell’arte-inspired *casortian* characters are: *Harlequin*: A prankster of humble background in love with Columbine. *Columbine*: A rogue bourgeois girl in love with Harlequin. *Cassander*: Columbine’s father, who wants his daughter to marry well. *Pierrot*: Cassander’s simpleton servant, who is the guardian of Columbine’s virtue and a little hot on her himself. *The courtesan*: A swain of good stock – Cassander’s choice of son-in-law. *Peasants, burghers, sailors, fisherman’s wives, local smallholders, trolls, fairies, devils, etc.* The realm of pantomime is populated with simple country folk, who supply much of the comedy, in addition to supernatural beings, who add drama, such as when they magically transform Harlequin’s sword into a rose in the brink of time or bless Columbine’s and Harlequin’s vows with heavenly grace. The Tivoli pantomimes are always love stories with a happy ending – an apotheosis where the Queen of Fairies weds Harlequin and Columbine surrounded by her entourage of fairies waving palm leaves. The backdrop shows a classic sunlit Greek temple, and the stage is flanked by red Bengal flares spewing from two large fryktos torches. The spoken word is banned yet ardent gestures make up for it when Harlequin attempts to fool Cassander into giving him Columbine’s hand with the go-between help of the clumsy clown Pierrot, who incidentally is the only pantomime character to ever get a word in, when he and the audience, according to tradition, at the end of the performance shouts a big Tivoli-hurray!”   Although the *casortian* pantomimes are the soul of the Tivoli pantomime tradition the theatre also hosts modern dance versions, as when in 2003 the first hip-hop pantomime was staged, entitled *Harlequin’s Triumph*. It featured as a classical Tivoli pantomime but the dance acts included electric boogie, locking and capoeira.


Dressed by the Queen

Her Majesty Queen Margrethe is an ardent admirer of the Tivoli Gardens Pantomime Theatre. She is a frequent visitor to the performances and has shown her talents as set and costume designer in several pantomimes. This year she is involved in the performance of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairytale *The Tinderbox*, a story about a soldier returning from war who is lured by a scrawny witch into a hollow tree where he finds treasure troves guarded by dogs with eyes as large as teacups, millstones and towers.   The Queen also designed costumes for the performance *Love in a Dustbin* with choreography by Dinna Bjørn and score by composer James Price. The story is a modern adaptation drawing inspiration from three different fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen. We all know the story *The Sweethearts* where the Spinning Top falls in love with the Ball, but is found far too inconsequential to ever be considered. Likewise *Love in a Dustbin* is inhabited by humble everyday objects that despite inflated ambitions all end up in the dustbin. The pantomime premiered in 2001 and with more than 90 performances at the Tivoli Gardens Pantomime Theatre it has become one of the most popular stories in the repertoire and has also been performed at the Royal Danish Theatre.   Hans Christian Andersen was yet again the inspiration in 2005 when the Tivoli Pantomime Theatre staged the Andersen fairytale *Thumbelina* about a tiny little girl who endures a miniature world of menace – including a lovestruck frog and getting engaged to a mole – until she finally shapes up and finds happiness and bliss in the arms of her Prince Charming.   Performances are featured at the Tivoli Gardens Pantomime Theatre throughout the summer season. Performances are free once you have paid the entrance fee to Tivoli Gardens.