‘It’s a real bugger to turn it into a pantomime, because the characters don’t really fit,’ remarks Sam Went, one of the two co-writers of Game of Thrones: The Pantomime. His voice comes through on the phone whilst at a table I’m seated with the show’s director, Susanna Jones, and actors Emma Gadson, Al Roberts, and Rapolas Strikauskas (playing Joffrey Baratheon, Ned Stark, and Littlefinger respectively). For the writers at least, adapting the behemoth that is George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones into a feasible, student panto posed a few challenges. When they initially bandied suggestions about, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first suggested, but then Sam and his co-writer Charlie Humphries wanted to ‘do a pop culture thing’, something that was different, yet well-known and popular with students. Game of Thrones was inevitably suggested, the timing being perfect with season eight right around the corner, yet in their first conceptualisation of the show, Joffrey was not their main character.
Sam explains: ‘For ages we were talking about Robb Stark being the principal boy, but then of course we’d have to do season two, and it feels a bit weird to jump into it a season in, especially for those who haven’t seen the show. But then we had a brainwave! Actually, if we do it from the villain’s point of view, it’s really much easier to cast each character into the traditional pantomime roles. Joffrey is obviously your handsome prince, Sansa is your princess, Ned Stark is your scheming villain – it just fits so much better from Joffrey’s perspective.’
Thus, Game of Thrones: The Pantomime was born. The show will retell the events of the first season of the show, but with a twist: it will be from the perspective of Joffrey Baratheon, the prince that we all love to hate. Emma Gadson stars as Joffrey, the gender swap harking back to a long pantomime tradition of the principal boy being played by a female: ‘Because I’m playing a pre-pubescent boy, I think a gender swap works, and we’re messing with a lot of the genders anyways.’ The cast list including a male Cersei (played by Anthony Corless, evidently our dame), and a female Pycelle (Isabella Triccani-Chinelli). Aside from the gender swaps there’s also character changes abound, as the panto challenges and entirely dismantles our understanding of who these well-known characters are.
Firstly, Emma’s Joffrey is certainly a far cry from his series/book counterpart, a character that Kit Harrignton recently suggested, in an interview with Stephen Colbert, some politicians may be trying to emulate: ‘He’s a radical force to be reckoned with – I think he was based on a Roman Emperor, I could be wrong, who was completely mad and wild. So, it’s just history repeating itself, which we may see in many political figures – today – maybe Trump.’ Unlike the original Joffrey, the panto’s version portrays him as a hero worthy of his throne. After all, the panto is ‘the truth’ as written by the star himself. ‘I think people like him in an “I hate him”-kind of way,’ suggests Emma, ‘like “I want to see him just so I can see him get ruined one day”- but obviously, in the case of our panto, you should be rooting for Joffrey. So, I think there will be a weird contention maybe in the audience where they’re battling between their previous hate for Joffrey and the new ‘you should like Joffrey in this’ perspective that we’re going to force on them.’
Director Susanna has in fact never watched the TV series or read the book: ‘I’m so qualified for this – so qualified – they were desperate!’ Although she may not have an extensive knowledge of Thrones, Susanna’s sense of comedy (well-honed through stand-up and her work with UEA’s comedy society, Headlights) is excellent. ‘Well it’s quite funny because I don’t know the characters that well and I have vague pop culture knowledge.’ She’s a fan of Gadson’s take on Joffrey, ‘He’s a bit of an angsty teenager, all “My father will hear about this!”’
‘So, a bit like Hamlet?’ I ask, for it would seem that the writers’ original idea worked its way into their panto after all.
‘Yes!’ Susanna says, ‘A bit like a Hamlet-Draco Malfoy version of Joffrey!’
Susanna is a fan of the script’s villains – Ned Stark and Littlefinger – ‘just the way they’ve swapped around’. With all of these character changes, it seems that the show will hardly be recognizable to even the most hardcore of Thrones fans. However, Sam then notes that he and co-writer Charlie have at least kept one character the same: Robert Baratheon. ‘But then Robert Baratheon could have been written by you in the first place, let’s be honest,’ counters Susanna. It’s clear to see that the cast and crew are passionate about this project and love the characters that they’ve created together. ‘I love Littlefinger,’ Rapolas adds, ‘– well I love him because I’m playing him, but Littlefinger turns into this blabbering buffoon in the panto, which is kind of a contrast to the Littlefinger in the actual series where he’s sort of this criminal mastermind. I think it’s a pretty funny change really.’
Sam’s the one responsible for this complete upheaval of character: ‘I’m pleased about Littlefinger too – it’s one of the parts of the script where I got my way as well. My co-writer Charlie, when I came up with how I wanted to make Littlefinger this muted, idiot servant with – well I won’t spoil it – but I was told “no, no – you absolutely can’t do that, no one in the production team will agree that this is funny” – but I got my way and I was right! I love Ned Stark as melodramatic, cackling, pantomime villain and I think everyone is going to be pleased with how we’ve done everyone’s favourite character – Tyrion Lannister – but I’m going to leave that as a surprise as to what’s gone on there.’
For Al though, his role as Ned Stark holds few surprises, ‘I don’t know, I mean I’m playing a Sean Bean part so I’m still going to die at the end.’
Even if the plot’s going to be a bit predictable, the script is embellished with a generous sprinkling of the writers’ humour and excellent puns. From gags about box-sets, Joffrey’s existential crisis, and ‘Something, something, dragons’, the script is full to the brim with fantastic one-liners bound to make the show an entertaining romp for UEA students. The one-night show isn’t just to serve laughs. It’s also a fundraiser for UEA’s Nightline, a student volunteer-run service that listens to students and offers support. ‘I think the advantage of Nightline is that it’s largely operated by UEA students, you’re talking to someone more your own age, and that makes it less intimidating,’ suggests Susanna, ‘Especially for students coming to university in their first year, it can be a big upheaval and quite lonely. I think it’s important to have Nightline alongside Student Support Services because it’s something you can access immediately.’
Before I let the team get back to work (they are students after all), I asked them what they expected of the TV series and what they hoped for from the show. Everyone of course hopes that the audience will enjoy the show – be they Thrones fans or not, Emma hopes that the show will initiate a panto society. As for season eight, Al doesn’t think anyone will sit on the Iron Throne, ‘it just seems more befitting that all the zombies – zombies, right? – Whitewalkers? They all take over the world and we should listen to it as a parody to global warming. That seems much more like the ending we deserve because we’re not little children anymore’. Sam goes for a completely different take: ‘Because Daenerys is the hero – she’s going to end up on the Iron Throne, but because she can’t have children and they’ve pretty much murdered everyone else in the royal family, that means there’s going to be no more heirs, so I think it’ll end with Westeros becoming a constitutional republic and everyone living happily ever after.’
Game of Thrones: The Pantomime will be on at the LCR on Wednesday 27th March.