Can you see beyond the tent?

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Nicole & Martin live in a caravan: it may be the least interesting thing about them.

People who live settled lives – most of us nowadays – have always regarded those who don’t with a mix of fascination and fear. Life without (apparent) ties is easily romanticised from the comfort of a property-holder’s armchair: think of Toad, abandoning the comforts of his stately home for a gypsy caravan. So it is not surprising that Nicole and Martin’s story is often told in reviews, film and even in the company’s own publicity, principally as the story of a travelling circus. It is, after all, such a quixotic tale – the Swiss family crisscrossing Europe to perform their spellbinding acrobatics in a big white tent before an unending parade of passing audiences.

It’s a good tale but, as I watched Nicole & Martin’s two performances in Oxford a few days ago, I wondered whether its familiar tropes weren’t obscuring a better one: that of highly-gifted, imaginative and rather brilliant artists. The white tent pitched on a school playing field, surrounded by red trucks and wooden caravans, banners and awnings looks like everyone’s idea of a circus. But what is offered inside is theatre, not circus, and very good theatre too.

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Nicole et Martin are the only performers (except for their son Samuel who, aged seven, performs a cameo with unselfconscious professionalism). For 70 minutes or so, they tell a familiar story – Hansel and Gretel and the Fisherman and his Wife, in Oxford – through music, acting, mime, juggling, acrobatics and more, with simple props: a bamboo cane, a silk cloth, a couple of boxes. They smudge the boundary between stage and audience, conscripting children to play roles where they sit when more characters are needed. The moment in Hansel and Gretel where the children share pieces of the gingerbread house with the whole audience typifies their generous stagecraft: who, in childhood, did not want to taste that miraculous treat?

This is not ‘children’s theatre’. It belongs to a tradition of storytelling older than such distinctions, capable of captivating a whole family, community or tribe. Laughter, fear and wonder are conjured up for all by actors who draw the circle of spectators ever closer without the aid of microphones. The performances are subtle. A stare, a raised eyebrow, a word, each delivered with precise timing, is understood by the youngest children and appreciated by everyone. The physical theatre is expressive, not slapstick. When the Fisherman’s Wife, whose insatiable ambition drives the story, stands on her husband’s head as Empress surveying her lands she is also literally crushing him with her demands. Hansel juggles as part of a lovely evocation of childhood play with his sister. It doesn’t stop the audience applauding virtuosity, as they did in concert halls before they became so stuffy, but the showstoppers never stop the show.

Though setting, skills and stories are all familiar, they are woven together with such craft, imagination and humanity that the result is entirely personal – an artistic experience of complete integrity. It could only have been created by these two people because it is a true reflection of how they make sense of the world and themselves in it. That they make theatre and offer it to audiences by moving from place to place with an auditorium and living space is just another aspect of that integrity. So is the education of their sons into and through their craft. None of this is a style or even a way of life: it is the only way they can be the artists they are.

How challenging that can be was evident in my conversation with Nicole, Martin and their artistic advisor, Kate Higginbottom, who’d invited me to see their work. The company tours eight months a year returning to Locarno, in Switzerland, for the winter to work on shows, repair material and organise the next year’s tour. They have financial support from the Canton of Basel and a few other sources, but have never secured regular backing from arts funders in Switzerland or elsewhere. Their applications are declined for being ‘circus’, or ‘not contemporary’, or ‘for children’, according to whatever criteria may be currently in vogue.

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But it is not because you live in a caravan and perform in a tent that you are a circus. It is not because you stand on your head that you are an acrobat, or because you can make a ball appear in your fingers that you are a magician. You are not a clown because you make people laugh. All that is surface – forms of expression, means to an end. It is the end that matters – the creation of memorable and moving theatre experiences that people go away from with an enriched sense of life’s possibilities. And that Nicole and Martin can do standing on their heads – literally – day after day after day, in eight languages, for people of all ages and cultures.

Over the centuries, the art world has created concepts, taxonomies, definitions and policies, all in the hope of understanding the endless complexity and variety of human artistic practice. It’s a worthy goal, insofar as it helps support the better work, but when it prevents people from seeing beyond those artificial ideas, it becomes pointless.

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Nicole & Martin live in a caravan and perform in a tent. So? What matters about them is that they create beautiful, truthful, captivating theatre in a world where artistic mediocrity is too often applauded. Like all artists, they deserve to be considered for what they create, and not what surrounds it. Fortunately, audiences seem to have no difficulty doing so and at each performance, Nicole & Martin make three hundred new friends who will remember their stories for years.

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