Chatterbox Interpret Edward Lear in Little Jokes

The absurdist verse of the English author inspires a new family-friendly stage play coming to Belfast and Derry~Londonderry

‘The owl and the pussycat went to sea…’ You probably know the rest – that generations of children carry the stories and the images of Edward Lear’s poems with them through life says much about the timeless appeal of nonsense.

Lear’s nonsense poems have been hugely influential, serving as a touchstone for the Theatre of the Absurd in the 1950s, Pink Floyd’s tragic, madcap guitarist Syd Barrett in the late 1960s, and children’s author Julia Donaldson's oeuvre in more recent times.

Not forgetting, of course, the millions of young readers in the past 150 years whose lives have been enriched by Lear’s humorous and touching absurdist yarns. Now Lear’s life and work are the inspiration behind Belfast theatre company Chatterbox Productions’ latest play, the fantastical Little Jokes.

‘I see life as basically tragic and futile and the only thing that matters is making little jokes,’ the Victorian poet and artist wrote, in a neat summation of his philosophy. ‘When I read that quotation,’ says Little Jokes playwright, Seamus Collins, ‘I knew that this was what the play was going to be about.’

Collins admits that he knew next to nothing about Lear beyond ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ until Chatterbox Productions’ artistic director Eilise McNicholas introduced him to the poems 'The Dong with a Luminous Nose' and 'The Jumblies'.

In previous collaborations, Collins had brought the script to McNicholas, but this time around the London-born, Belfast-based director pitched her idea to the writer. ‘Everybody has one book in their childhood, whether it’s Harry Potter or whatever,’ says McNicholas. ‘Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense was mine. For the past few years I’d been contemplating doing a show about his work and his life.’

Collins was immediately smitten by the idea. ‘I could see what inspired Lear’s work, what was underneath it – real human emotion, done in a really absurd and surreal way.’

A melancholy undercurrent runs through the wit and surrealism of Lear’s nonsense poems. In 'The Dong with a Luminous Nose', the Dong in question is the victim of unrequited love when the fair Jumbly girl – with ‘her sky-blue hands and her sea-green hair’ – abandons him ‘on the cruel shore, gazing, gazing for evermore'.

It’s a fitting metaphor for Lear’s life-long search for companionship and his sense of aloneness. ‘It was funny to put human emotions in these strange creatures,’ says Collins. ‘There was some level of genius in that and I think that’s what endures.’

Human emotions are central to Little Jokes. The narrative unfolds in the imagination of Anthony, an unhappy boy who is being cared for by his sister. That much mirrors Lear’s own childhood, one that was blighted by respiratory problems, depression and in particular gran mal epilepsy, a burden he bore as a source of shame.

Little Jokes, however, is not a literal tale. ‘I didn’t want to make it a biography of Edward Lear,’ explains Collins. ‘The child invents this world that Lear becomes part of. I wanted to have a bit of freedom with the narrative. With the imagination of the child I had license, I think, to do that.’

‘It’s a mixture of reality and fantasy,’ agrees actress Hannah Coyle. ‘It’s about a little boy who goes to live with his sister and the difficulties they have becoming accustomed to each other. She is a person of authority and he doesn’t respect that. He finds solace through the poems of Lear.’

Though Lear – who wandered incessantly through the Mediterranean in his later years – wrote poems and limericks that were accessible to both children and adults, it’s likely that he wrote mainly for himself, seeking comfort in fantasy.

‘In Anthony’s fantasy world he sees problems that are happening in his life happening to someone else,’ says Coyle. ‘Sometimes it’s easier to help yourself through helping somebody else. That is essentially the story between him and Lear, how they begin to resolve issues within themselves through the other person.’

Collins, however, doubts that Lear ever came to terms with his personal difficulties: ‘I think that he only ever succeeded in making other people feel better.’

Little Jokes is the third collaboration between Collins and McNicholas, and both writer and director recognize that they’ve collaborated more closely on this production than ever before. ‘She’s very much focused on the physical side of theatre and that’s her real strength,’ explains Collins. ‘My strength is with words. There’s a lot of freedom with Chatterbox. The working relationship has become very strong.’

McNicholas echoes Collin’s sentiments and acknowledges the role that the actors have played in shaping Little Jokes. ‘What they brought to it was the idea of shadow puppets. We’d never worked with that before. The shadow puppets are kind of the center of the piece because that’s how we represent Nonsense Land, where Anthony goes as a young boy. It’s a chorus piece.'

McNicholas’ initial idea took wings when Chatterbox Productions became HATCH artists at The MAC, which means financial support throughout the year. ‘We also get free rehearsal space, advice from the programming and marketing people and we have an office here,’ adds McNicholas. ‘They’ve made this project happen for us. Without HATCH we couldn’t have done it.’

A week of rehearsals took place in The MAC in February 2014. Four months later, The MAC staged the premier of Little Jokes as part of the Pick ‘n’ Mix Festival. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival beckoned next, where McNicholas and Coyle respectively won official commendations for directing and acting.

Once again, Little Jokes is back on home soil and the team of Chatterbox Productions is hoping for an audience of mixed ages at the Belfast and Derry~Londonderry shows. ‘In Edinburgh we had people who are 89 come to the show and we had four-year-olds too,’ says Coyle. ‘It was really nice to see that mix. We think that’s what Lear would have wanted.’

Nonsense poetry, shadow puppetry and the live music of the production aside, the themes of loss, loneliness and isolation recurrent in Little Jokes would seem, on the face it, to be more suited to adults. The production team see it different, however.

‘Some of the best kids’ books are so dark, because you want to be able to tell kids about isolation and death. Little Jokes speaks to children but not in a patronizing or moralizing way,’ remarks McNicholas.

‘It’s also an incredibly hopeful play,’ adds Coyle, ‘and ends on a hopeful note that anybody can find redemption. Anthony does acknowledge war and global warming, in addition to his own problems, but through the poetry and the nonsense world and that escapism, he finds a reason to go on. Nobody has to feel like a lost cause.’

‘For me, Little Jokes is for everyone because so too, I feel, was Edward Lear’s poetry,’ concludes Collins. ‘In spite of all of his terrible personal problems, he created wonderfully funny poems that are still funny and relevant now.’

Little Jokes runs at The MAC, Belfast from September 4 – 5 and at the Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry on September 6.