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Pantomime dame Ben Roddy talks drag and being a clown



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Pantomime is an absolute British staple – dry and childish humour, ridiculous costumes and crude jokes just for the adults – and none would be complete without the true star of the show, the dame.

With roots in drag and the harlequin in Commedia Dell’arte shows, is it still socially acceptable and relevant in an ever-changing world?

The art of pantomime goes back to Ancient Greece. Back then, the men would perform in female roles as it was not accepted that women should be on stage.

He embraces chaos and freedom to be yourself on stage. Picture: Pamela Raith
He embraces chaos and freedom to be yourself on stage. Picture: Pamela Raith

From the 16th century, Italian Commedia Dell'arte began, which is the true root of British pantomime.

In ancient Italian theatre, there are examples of dame-style characters – the Columbina was a man playing a female servant.

This continued into Shakespearean times as men would have to take up iconic female characters such as Juliet and Lady Macbeth. Women were strictly forbidden to step foot on stage.

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British pantomime was born in the 18th century with a recipe of classic Commedia Dell'arte and British slapstick humour. This is a combination that has proved successful and remained the same ever since.

The first true pantomime dame was Dan Leno, a comedian, and he captured the hearts of audiences at the Surrey Theatre.

Dames of the present day always want to replicate that same success and take to the stage every Christmas hoping to make the audience laugh.

Ben Roddy, an actor from Kent, has become accustomed to playing this historical pantomime role and is playing the dame for his ninth year in a production of Jack and The Beanstalk in his home town of Canterbury.

He is inspired by the 'Old Mother Riley' characters of the past and plays the role more as though it is a clown or harlequin than a true woman.

Ben is inspired by the harlequin and 'Old Mother Riley'. Picture: Ben Roddy
Ben is inspired by the harlequin and 'Old Mother Riley'. Picture: Ben Roddy

He said: "I feel like the dame is a clown – that's how I relate to it anyway, I don't really consider it to be drag.

"Other people have different opinions and they're all valid, but that's how I play mine and there is no suggestion at any time that I'm actually a woman."

There is obviously a crossover between drag artistry and the dame character – the very principle of a man dressed as a woman is the same.

Many dame characters are played by heterosexual men, which has raised the concern that it could be seen as making a mockery of queer culture and the LGBTQ+ community.

But Ben assures that the laughs come from the actor as the butt of the joke and there is no intention to make fun of anyone.

He is often the butt of his own jokes on stage. Picture: Ben Roddy
He is often the butt of his own jokes on stage. Picture: Ben Roddy

He added: "There are plenty of wonderful drag artists who would play dame very successfully, but that's not how I play it.

"I think it's just a question of, you know, I'm a man dressed as a woman. So in that, in that sense, I suppose it is drag.

"Drag has its roots in a different place to a panto dame which has its roots elsewhere I guess?"

He joked that the dame is more grotesque and he makes no attempt to be pretty, which he has been very successful at.

Although Ben still believes that despite being very different, the very concept behind the dame aligns with the LGBTQ+ community.

He continued: "I mean, they very much come from the same place of subversion and freedom of thought and opinion.

"It's also just the chaos and enjoyment of being who you are and embracing who you are.

"I think we're very conscious of always trying to punch up with our jokes and never down.

"No one is the butt of our jokes, and if there is one it's generally us. It's just a strong tradition."

With society evolving at a rapid pace there is always a fear that traditions can become outdated and no longer align with mainstream views.

River Medway appeared in the West End production of Dick Whittington. Picture: Tuckshop UK
River Medway appeared in the West End production of Dick Whittington. Picture: Tuckshop UK

Drag Race star River Medway, performed in a West End pantomime rendition of Dick Whittington.

This was a pantomime like no other, with a full cast of drag queens instead of the usual dame.

Ben commented: "I think it's vital that panto evolves because it's just a reflection of society really.

"Panto has been going in its current form for 150 odd years because it embraces change and moves forward.

"The audience and the people on stage are kind of the same and we all move together – I think as soon as it stops moving, that's when there will be trouble."

He believes the Marlowe Theatre, where he is performing, has truly embraced change and added: "We're really proud this year at the Marlowe for the way our show has evolved.

"We've had some fantastic reviews saying it's like the future of pantomime.

"We're holding a mirror up to society and I think if we're honest and truthful with that, then I think we're okay."



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