It’s probably fair to say that for Emma Rice the last couple of years have been a bit of a rollercoaster.
One of the most exciting and innovative stage directors of her generation, Rice is a hugely respected figure in the world of theatre. Her appointment in 2016 as artistic director of the Globe was greeted with excitement and anticipation.
It was generally felt that if anyone could make Shakespeare more accessible to more people, it was Rice. She had spent the previous twenty years working with pioneering Cornish theatre company Kneehigh as an actor, director, writer and artistic director, and as such had been responsible for creating some of the most memorable productions to grace British stages over the past quarter century, including Tristan & Yseult, Brief Encounter, A Matter of Life and Death, The Wild Bride and The Red Shoes. Her opening production at the Globe in May 2016 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was raucous, energetic and irreverent – and audiences loved it.
It all seemed to be going so well but then, less than a year after that glorious debut, following controversy ostensibly over the use of lighting and sound, it was announced that after just two seasons in post, Rice would be stepping down in April 2018.
What was most confusing as an observer was that it was obvious Rice was doing something right – audiences were clearly engaged by her productions at the Globe and the box office returns for her critically acclaimed first season were exceptionally high. So what went wrong? In a gracious yet candid open letter published on the theatre’s website at the time of the announcement of her departure Rice wrote that she had chosen to leave “because as important and beloved as the Globe is to me, the board did not love and respect me back” adding that her decision was not “simply about lights and sound, it was about personal trust and artistic freedom.” The message was clear – she was leaving with a heavy heart, yes, but with her creative integrity intact.
Now, almost a year later, that episode is well and truly behind her. Her latest production, Wise Children an adaptation of the great Angela Carter’s final novel, from her new company (also Wise Children) is currently on a UK tour and at York Theatre Royal this week. The production premiered at the Old Vic in London last October and received a string of four-star reviews. The Guardian described it as “a spectacular show”, the Evening Standard found it “joyous and inventive” and the Stage called it “one huge love letter to theatre”.
Reflecting on the events at the Globe today Rice says she found that, after the initial shock, the experience gave her a new clarity. “Without raking over old coals I think I helped the Globe discover who they are and what they wanted to do and that didn’t include me. That was hurtful, but you know life goes on. I was 50 by that time – I had all these years of experience of making theatre and then that happened, but there was also this clean slate and it came to me very clearly what I was going to do. I knew I was going to start my own company and I was going to call it Wise Children and that the first production would be an adaptation of Wise Children. Working on that has really been what has carried me through.”
It tells the story of 75-year-old twin chorus girls Nora and Dora Chance, who may or may not be the illegitimate daughters of Melchior Hazard the greatest actor of his generation, and it is billed as ‘a big, bawdy tangle of theatrical joy and heartbreak.’ The play’s reception last autumn must have been not only a source of pride, but there may also surely have been a feeling of vindication. “It is very satisfying,” says Rice. “I have been around long enough to know that some shows work better than others and some shows appeal to critics more than others, but this one really means a lot to me. The fact that it’s been so successful and so universally loved… I feel normal again.”
This is not the first time that Rice has adapted a Carter novel for the stage – her 2006 Kneehigh production of Nights at the Circus was magnificent, a huge hit for the company – and she is a great admirer of the ground-breaking novelist. The adaptation of Wise Children was something Rice had been thinking about for a long time. It couldn’t be more appropriate that her first show with her new company should be one that is an unapologetic appreciation of showbusiness, of family, forgiveness and hope.
“I knew this was what I needed to do because it is a piece which demonstrates that my own love affair with theatre is ongoing,” says Rice. “There is a line towards the end of the play that talks about finding your ‘family of choice’. I have a marvellous biological family but through my life and work in theatre I have found a wonderful ‘family of choice’ and I love Angela Carter for seeing that and naming that. It is a hard life in showbusiness but the friendships and love affairs of all kinds that you find are really life-enhancing. And this play is very much a celebration of that.”
The touring production features some old friends from Kneehigh including founder and artistic director Mike Shepherd and composer and musical director Stu Barker. “I often say that if you cut me in half I’d have Kneehigh running through me,” she says. “But we talk to each other all the time, so in that sense I don’t miss them. In a way there is no leaving Kneehigh – it’s my dearest family and community and it’s been the most incredible adventure.”
Her latest adventure will include a spell actually treading the boards, taking over the role of Nora from Etta Murfitt (who has a longstanding previous commitment) for the last part of the tour at Richmond Theatre in late March and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in early April. “I’m just now suddenly feeling the fear,” she says, laughing. “I haven’t been on stage for ten years and it is a different part of your brain that you use when you are directing. But I know my lovely company will support me and help me through it.”
While it deals with some of the thornier, messier aspects of the actor’s life, the show is also shamelessly upbeat. “It is not without its dark side, but in the end it is about hope and love. For me working on it during a difficult period in my life has been wonderful. I love it – I love it to my bones.”
Wise Children is at York Theatre Royal until March 16. For tickets call 01904 623568 or online at www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk