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A nose for nonsense

Edward Lear’s children’s verses are darker than first imagined. Puppet-maker Peter O’Rourke, who is bringing one of the writer’s most famous works to life at the Little Angel Theatre

12 September, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

A puppeteer manipulates The Dong with the Luminous Nose

They were the stars of a celebrated nonsense poem by Victorian writer Edward Lear. Called the Jumblies, they are a collection of creatures “whose heads were green and hands were blue” and went to sea in a sieve.

But their story– and the sequel about a creature called the Dong, who falls in love with a Jumbly – is more than a light-hearted tale to entertain children.

While Lear is known for his nonsense poetry, as well as being an accomplished and celebrated artist, there is more to his playful rhyming couplets, limericks and stories.

Now an adaptation of Lear’s poem The Dong With The Luminous Nose by renowned puppet-maker and director Peter O’Rourke takes the stage at Islington’s famous Little Angel puppet theatre – and it draws on Lear’s motive for writing such a love story.

“The poem is quite obscure. A lot of people do not much about Lear beyond The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” says Peter. “When I first read it I thought: what fantastic imagery, and that it would be great to adapt. It is actually a fairly dark story – a wandering figure searching for his lost love. Because he can’t see in the dark, he makes himself a wickerwork mask with a brazier full of coals to light the way as he looks for his Jumbly girl.

“I liked the idea of this image – the Dong searching through the night with this great contraption strapped to his face, was crying out to be realised as piece of Bunraku-style puppetry, but with dance-like choreography. Lear’s drawings for his limericks depict figures in extreme poses, often tiptoeing or rocking on their heels with arms splayed out, and it would be great to capture some of this in a puppet’s movement.”

And the poor Dong, searching high and low for his love, is typical of Lear’s work, adds Peter.
“There is an emotional core to Lear that distinguishes him from contemporaries such as Lewis Carroll, for example. Carroll had an intellectual approach and turned logic on its head – but for Lear, it is emotional. His nonsense poems were a side of him expressing things about his place in the world, a sense of things he could not express in Victorian times.”

The writer and artist – who lived in a house behind the Nags Head in Holloway Road – was the 20th of 21 children. His father had lost money in a stock market crash caused by the Napoleonic wars and spent time in a debtors’ prison: his sister, Ann, raised him. Lear suffered from epileptic seizures – something he felt profoundly embarrassed by. He was gay and was forced to hide his sexuality.

“He became this mixture of someone who really wanted to be a social person instinctively but had to keep a side of his life hidden,” adds Peter.

Lear’s skill as an artist saw him commissioned by wealthy patrons: Lord Derby, who had a menagerie at his country pile, employed Lear to paint his animals.

Into adulthood, Lear’s health deteriorated – suffering from asthma, he travelled in the hope a change in climate would alleviate the symptoms. “He painted landscapes to pay his way,” adds Peter.

And it was while he was working abroad that, in 1871, he created the characters he called The Jumblies.

“They live on an island and hop from place to place, where they pick up souvenirs. The Jumblies are a satire of people he relied on – rich patrons who had done the Grand Tour. They got to Rome and then want a big picture for when they got home. He had to stay on the right side of these patrons but did not feel he fitted in. It all added to his sense of isolation and loneliness.”

Six years after writing The Jumblies, Lear returned to the idea and penned The Dong, a poem about the aftermath of their visit to an island.

“The Dong was happy until the Jumblies came,” he says. Then he feels bereft – he has fallen in love, but the object of his affection has disappeared.

“He sits on the shoreline waiting for his Jumbly girl to come back. He goes out of his head and start wandering the island, looking for her. He searches night and day. It is a poem about loneliness, about feeling like an outsider. It is so rich in detail.”

Peter O’Rourke and a friend

Peter has written, directed, produced, adapted and made a series of award-winning shows – and his route in to this theatrical world comes from a background in fine art.

“I was in my last year at art college when I really became interested in puppets and puppetry,” he recalls. “What excited me was looking at traditional forms of puppets and realising you really could do anything with them. They could offer an abstract visual language and movement. Often, when people think of puppets, their first thought is Punch and Judy or traditional marionettes – they are very nice, but I felt there was a lot of opportunity to explore and express a visual language on stage.”

Peter draws on a number of art movements in his work.

“When creating a show, I want to think about the multitude of visual imagery the art world has to offer,” he says.

Peter’s creations are both figurative and abstract. “Audiences are visually literate,” he adds. “They ‘get’ Cubism or Dadaism and are accepting of these styles. They are used to seeing them referenced in graphic art, in advertising, and they understand them – not always from their original sources, and not always consciously, but people get the references. This gives the show a recognisable identity.”

The Dong with the Luminous Nose is on until November 10 at Little Angel Theatre, 14 Dagmar Passage, N1 2DN, 020 7226 1787, email info@littleangeltheatre.com, littleangeltheatre.com

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