Artbeat

7th November 2007 at 00:00

The Second World War continues to reverberate through folk memory and to inform the culture of those whose parents were not born in time to witness Dunkirk or the Battle of Britain.

Consider the furore over U-571, the new film that credits American marines with acts of heroism in recovering an Enigma code machine from a U-boat and changing the course of the war. The incident is based on historical fact - except that the heroes were Brits. Meanwhile, the Imperial War Museum has just set up a Holocaust exhibition, as reported in last week's TES Friday, and Anne Frank's Diary continues to be staple fare for young readers in the top years of primary school. Last week the BBC remembered the evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk exactly 60 years ago and a new play at the Royal National Theatre, Albert Speer, was discussed on Radio 4's Today programme.

David Edgar's play, based on Gitta Sereny's book, Albert Speer: his battle with truth and directed by Trevor Nunn, is useful for older students studying the period and raises all sorts of questions about human behaviour and responsibility - enough to keep sixth-formers in worthwhile discussion for weeks. A friend came out of the theatre saying: "It proves the importance of teaching citizenship."

Speer, Hitler's architect, claimed he knew nothing of the death camps. This is difficult to believe, but wilful blindness is not, especially as Edgar and Sereny suggest that Speer found in Hitler a father-substitute.

The play deals with notions of history and perceptions of truth as much as with the case of one man, subsequently imprisoned in Spandau but released to write his own version of events. Speer describes how he "sold his soul" and, in a kind of Faustian pact, swallowed Hitler's philosophy in return for the most exhilarating career opportunities, including the redesigning of Berlin.

Edgar's task was a formidable one - Sereny's book fills more than 700 pages and he could assume little prior knowledge among the audience. The result is a play more than three hours long of which the first half is a chronicle of war-time events as described by Speer in prison.

The second half takes off as a dramatic examination of Speer's moral position and the way it applies to all of us. Alex Jennings plays Speer as a troubled man in need of love who has to admit, ultimately, that persuading himself of his ignorance wasnot enough - he should have known. Roger Allam's Hitler, a genial chap with a moustache to begin with, but a crazed monster by the end, makes Speer's behaviour at least credible. Can we all be certain we would not be seduced into blinking at horrors given such flattery and opportunities for preferment?

Tickets: 020 7452 3000. An education pack is in preparation. Enquiries: 020 7452 3388.

Another topic of current debate is our treatment of the countryside. National Trust Theatre Projects and Derby University Theatre Studies have joined to form Stepping Stones, a graduate theatre in education company which will perform in National Trust properties during June and July.

Whose Land is it Anyway? will allow pupils at key stage 2 and 3 to explore the complexities of countryside management by adopting the role of journalists questioning such characters as an eco-warrior, a farmer, an archaeologist and a day-tripper. The company consists of graduating drama students who, with the support of their founding organisations, run their own business. For information: 020 8315 1111; www.nationaltrust.org.ukeducation The ecological problem in Go Wild With The Happy Gang is an unusual one. They must save the Jelly Forest. Scottish children's theatre and television favourites the Happy Gang, are making a lightning detour to the Pleasance in Islington, north London, between June 14 and 18 from their long tour of Scotland. Information: 0131 228 5566; www.happygang.co.uk The Happy Gang have music but all life has rhythm. The Natural History Museum presents an exhibition exploring nature's clocks. Described as a "high-energy interactive exhibition for all the family", Rhythms of Life opens on July 8. A rhythmic soundtrack, time lapse and slow-motion photography will help reveal the hidden clocks and cycles of nature. There will be gallery activities for adults, children and school groups. For timetable and bookings: 020 7942 5555.

That respected institution, the City Lit, which provides adult education for 22,000 students, in everything from alternative medicine to computing and languages, is celebrating its 80th birthday. Former student Steven Berkoff will perform his one-man show Tell Tale Heart at Sadler's Wells on Monday as part of a special gala evening. The City Lit proves life-long learning is not a new idea. Information: 020 7242 9872.

Heather Neill


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