I’ve long regarded theatre itself as a crucial facet in education and it doesn’t always have to be pigeon-holed as “theatre for young audiences”. Learning is, after all, a lifelong process, and children and young people can often get a lot out of work which was not specifically created for them.
Take the marvellous Nutcracker, which I saw, courtesy of Northern Ballet, at the splendid new Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury earlier this week. Yes, it’s such a confection that of course it works well for children and there were quite a few youngsters in the audience including, I was pleased to note, some enthusiastic boys.
On the other hand, it’s timeless and ageless. I know every note of that music and have been familiar with most of the Act 2 set pieces since childhood because Derek McCulloch, aka Uncle Mac, used to play them on Children’s Favourites on the radio on Saturday mornings. And yet I never listen to the full ballet score (as opposed to the suite) or see a production without noticing something new and delicious and learning from it.
I thought David Nixon’s choreography and direction for this production was fresh and original with some really spectacular work in, for example, the Arabian Dance. The whole show was a joy.
I was also pleased to discover from the programme that Northern Ballet is now established in its own new building in Leeds and that its training arm, Northern Ballet Academy, is developing children (some of the mice in the Nutcracker for instance) with talent and ambition as well as offering dance classes for all - from tiny tots to over 55s.
Twenty four hours after The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s music still dancing in my head, I was at a completely different sort of show, reflecting all over again on the learning, education and training potential of the performing arts.
This time it was The House of Bernada Alba - but (probably) not as you’ve ever seen it before. Performed by Iranian puppetry company Yas-e-Tamam Theater Group at New Diorama, it was part of Little Angel Theatre’s biennial, ten-day Suspense Festival which is currently bringing us puppetry for adults in eleven different venues across London.
The first learning point (for me at any rate) is the significance of puppetry in Iran. In a regime so strict and artistically limiting that, by comparison, the old blue pencil of Britain’s Lord Chancellor seems positively liberal, you can do and say things with puppets that are off-limits with actors. For example, male and female actors are not allowed to touch and you cannot show dancing on stage - but puppets can kiss and dance.
There is an argument (often used, for example, about the subtle eroticism in British nineteenth century novels) that repression and censorship can actually breed artistic creativity. Yas-e-Tamam’s production, directed by Zahra Sabri who founded the company in 1990, certainly bears that out.
Three masked actors - their faces bandaged as a comment on Iranian repression of women - manipulate dozens of lookalike puppets to tell Lorca’s story of the woman who used her own widowhood as a reason for trying to prevent her five daughters leaving and living. There is a lot of metaphor and symbolism such as embroidery which stands for domesticity and galloping horses which evoke sexual yearning.
The text is pre-recorded like a radio play but the movement and mime skill of these Iranian actors is such that there is never any doubt about who is speaking. It’s a strange and rather moving experience — even though the text for this hour long show is in (to me, incomprehensible) Farsi — to watch Muslim actors pretending to be Catholics in this literally dark, visually stunning piece. I learned a great deal and I’m pretty sure everyone else in the audience did too.
This is award-winning Yas-e-Tamam’s first visit to London - carefully brokered over a three-year period by a delighted and triumphant Peter Glanville, Little Angel’s Artistic Director, who has visited Tehran to learn more about the puppetry and the performing arts in Iran.