Emma Rice on bouncing back with Wise Children: ‘This show has been my saviour’

Published in The i on October 15, 2018

Emma Rice is scrolling through her emails as the cast of her new show, Wise Children, prepare to rehearse a scene. She laughs: somehow she’s wound up on a recruitment email service, suggesting she apply for a job in a call centre.

She’s a little busy right now: Wise Children – an adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel – is about to open at the Old Vic in London before touring, and is the first production of Rice’s new theatre company, also called Wise Children. And the company has opened a theatre school in Bristol.

Still, Rice might well smile – after all, she explosively found herself out of a job in 2016, less than a year after becoming artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. Rice, who previously ran beloved Cornish company Kneehigh, was a bold, brilliant appointment, but the board were unhappy with the direction she was steering the theatre, especially her use of electric light and amplified sound. Corners of the press, too, went on the attack about modern – or modish? – productions.

Her early departure from the Globe was clearly painful. “I was in for the long run, there’s no pretending that wasn’t the case, and I loved it – I absolutely loved it,” she says candidly.

But how does it feel to be master of her own ship? “Well bloody marvellous, I suppose!” she laughs. Rice laughs a lot; the warmth that suffuses her work evidence in person too.

And she’s now able to be philosophical about the Globe debacle. “I take out of it far, far more than I feel was taken from me. It opened my eyes to so many things, and to take that into my own company is amazing.”

Wise Children is largely a collection of collaborators she knows and trusts – many from her Kneehigh days. “I really believe in loyalty,” she says. Their rehearsal room is a cheery place; they have the feeling of a company already.

Musical director Ian Ross is one of her long-term team; for him, the new company is a synthesis of different approaches. “Kneehigh to me represents the windswept cliffs of freedom, a process of play and emotion. The Globe, I think, puts a little bit more structure around those things. And now, with Wise Children, there is a bit of both – for the better. We’ve all learnt how the grown-ups do it in London, and some of it makes sense. And some of it really doesn’t…”

Wise Children the show seems like the perfect choice to launch the company: Carter’s story is a ribald romp following two families – the Hazards, grand classical actors living in Chelsea, and the Chances, chorus girls based in Brixton. Stuffed with twins, disputed parentage, near-incestuous romances, lost relatives and big reveals, it is gloriously, irreverently Shakespearean.

“It’s about low art and high art, south of the river and north of the river,” suggests Rice. It is an obvious fit: “My work is very high art-low art, populist.”

Rice was commissioned to adapt it by Nicholas Hytner eight years ago, but then he left the National Theatre. She took it with her to the Globe, and then that fell apart. When she found herself unemployed, she had a “brilliant ray of clarity”. “I’m gonna do Wise Children, my love letter to theatre: the dirt of it, the sexiness of, the community of it – and the cost of it. And certainly, at that moment, post-Globe, I thought: that’s my story, I’m bleeding out from that moment.

“It’s carried me through,” Rice continues, not one to shy away from heart-on-sleeve grand statements. “It’s been my saviour.”

Carter’s approach to Shakespeare is affectionate – but also impish, I suggest. “Oh yeah. I wonder why I thought that was a good idea?” replies Rice with a throaty chuckle.

There’s something rather delicious about it, as a riposte to those who thought she took liberties with hallowed Shakespearean texts. Is she using Wise Children to cock a snook? “I don’t think there’s any snooks to cock! Angela loved Shakespeare, and I do, although that’s rarely talked about. I hope it’s loved and laughed at in equal measure, which I approve of – in all things.”

She also adores one of Carter’s repeated lines in the book: “what a joy it is to dance and sing!” This, for Rice, is a “simple truth” of this life, and you can expect Wise Children – both the company and the show – to be full of joy, and full of dancing and singing.

Ian Ross and his band are on stage, and integral to the action. They found a playlist Carter made herself while working on the novel, which led their thinking on the music, featuring “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “and a whole bunch of bawdy music hall stuff, show tunes from across the ages basically,” he says.

The Old Vic should also provide a fine home: one of the main characters, Sir Melchior Hazard, has more than a hint of Sir Laurence Olivier. Still, Rice also points out: “We all now know what’s been going on in the dressing rooms here,” alluding to allegations against former artistic director Kevin Spacey, which he denies. “I feel that this theatre vibrates with it, and we’re really looking that in the eye,” she volunteers.

Wise Children, written in 1991, features a fair few pervy actors, lecherous uncles and casting-couch scenes. Carter’s tone is acid, but comic; it’s all part of the messy, risqué world of the theatre. How does such an approach go over in the current climate?

“She’s actually more forgiving of the male characters than I can be in 2018,” says Rice. “Angela Carter never portrayed women as victims, and I hope I’m true to that, but there’s a few chapters that she misses out in that bravura, that now I want to put in.”

Wise Children is not just a show, or a company: it’s also a school. The artists Rice has assembled have to be up for teaching, too. The aim is to develop the next generation of theatre-makers – and to diversify that by offering half the places for free.

“The next chapter has to also be about what you can put back in,” Rice concludes. “I’ve been looking at myself for a long time – it’s time to look out.”

‘Wise Children’ is at Old Vic, London until 10 November (0844 871 7628), and on tour until 6 April (wisechildren.co.uk)

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