Simon Callow: Like Olivier, I am revisiting a classic role


I last played the role of Abanazar 32 years ago. It was my first and until this year my last attempt at pantomime, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that one should always come back to the great classical roles and I was delighted that someone thought to ask me.

Olivier's failure as Macbeth in 1937 was redeemed by his success in the same part in 1955, his early Coriolanus reprised triumphantly 20 years later. My first Abanazar, at Lincoln in 1973, was the wild stab of a 24-year-old, which, though not without a certain theatrical energy, lacked the fuller understanding of evil which, sadly, the years have brought. I used, all those years ago, to manage to reduce the odd child to tears of terror; now, with any luck, it'll be the entire audience.

The characters of pantomime are pure archetypes and Abanazar is a particularly unnerving one: the rich stranger who pretends to be the boyish hero's kindly and long-lost uncle, who seduces the boy's mother and then forces him to descend into a dank and terrifying cave to procure the means by which he will dominate the world and enthrone evil.

Everyone in the audience, men, women, and most of all children, should be genuinely disturbed by the wicked sorcerer's designs on the lad.

What is especially enjoyable in playing the part is that the world which Abanazar seeks so diabolically to subvert is one of total mayhem: Aladdin's mother is a large man, Aladdin himself is often a leggy girl, Aladdin's brother a tongue-twisting twit, the Genie disobedient and lippy.

Although Abanazar is able to inspire the audience to fear, no one on stage seems to have any sense of danger, no matter how often the audience tells them that he's behind them, or begs them not to hand over the lamp. They live in a perpetually cheery never-never land where misfortune may get you down for a minute or two, but from which you will always be able to rise by simple dint of singing a jolly song or being given some homely encouragement by the Genie.

Simon Callow stars with Patsy Kensit and Christopher Biggins in 'Aladdin' at Richmond Theatre from 8 December to 22 January

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