Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Emma Rice: Directing Theatre… and Being Fearless

The first show which director Emma Rice made for Kneehigh was a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s deeply unpleasant fairytale The Red Shoes. It is a story which punishes a young woman for giving in to temptation. Rice’s version subverted the original, reframing it as a story about those who act on their desires, particularly women, and “dare to dance a different dance”. 

Rice has dared to dance a different dance all of her career. While many directors follow a path designed to progress careers – and who can blame them? – Rice has always alighted on things that interest her, like a magpie swooping down on something bright and glittering. The result has been a body of work which feels as if it matters to its maker – and therefore it also matters to us. When asked how she goes about choosing what shows to make, Rice has described it as like “scratching an itch”. 

Rice’s luck was that for a substantial period of her career she has been able to follow her itches – and her instincts – and reimagine on stage the stories to which she is emotionally drawn. These stories often have their roots either in myth (Tristan and Yseult in 2003 or The Bacchae in 2004) or in folk and ‘wonder’ tales which include versions of The Wooden Frock (2003) and Rapunzel (2006), The Little Matchgirl (2016), and Shakespeare’s most fairytale-like play Cymbeline which was produced for the RSC in 2006. 

These are tales that offer not just archetypal stories but also instructions for living. Rice’s gift has been her ability to take these age-old tales and turn them into stories about how we might live now. The Wooden Frock was a tender examination of adolescent fears and burgeoning sexuality, while Rapunzel suddenly seemed sharply contemporary in exploring the suffocating results of over-zealous parenting and an inability to let your child go. The Little Matchgirl offered a comment not just on Victorian poverty but a reminder that in 21st-century Britain – one of the richest countries in the world – the poor are still with us. 

Right from the very start, many of the shows have felt genuinely personal. In The Red Shoes the heroine must decide whether to wholeheartedly embrace the dance or live a more conventional life, just as Rice herself had to decide whether to live the life of an artist or a tamer existence. Rice’s final Kneehigh show, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (2016), focused on the relationship between Marc and Bella Chagall to explore the nature and cost of creativity. There are both gains and losses, which is acknowledged in her most recent show, a version of Angela Carter’s sprawling novel, Wise Children (2018), created for Rice’s new company of the same name. 

Wise Children is many things – including a boisterous celebration of the power of low art not just to entertain but touch our hearts – but in Rice’s hands, it also becomes a peon to alternative kinds of family. Particularly the family of theatre itself where the outsiders – the childless and parentless, the illegitimate, the unchosen and those who choose to dance a different dance – can find a home. It is as if the chorus of loveless bird twitchers – who so enlivened Tristan and Yseult – have finally seized centre stage to tell their stories and discovered that their hearts do beat with passion and blood after all. 

Rice’s lucky break was to join Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall in the late 1990s as an actor. Kneehigh is a remarkable company who are deeply embedded in the landscape and folklore of the South West. It is a company which has always understood that to be truly universal you must first be local. It was also a company whose generosity in the way it interacted with audiences of all ages, often in outdoor settings, extended to a generosity in how it used actors not as puppets but as collaborators and makers. 

As a result, Rice has always understood that harnessing the expertise and contributions of everyone in the room makes for a richer, more diverse, and more boldly textured theatre. An Emma Rice production values clowning as much as it sets store by fine acting; it is likely to meld popular music with classical sounds; and it constantly performs a high-wire act as it negotiates the tragic and the pantomimic, daft comedy and bruising truths. If much British theatre of the last 20 years has been knowing and ironic, Rice’s work has been distinctive for the way it wears its heart on its giddy sleeve. 

There is a real visual inventiveness too: umbrellas stand in for honking geese in The Wooden Frock; swinging on the chandeliers stand in for sex in Rice’s 2008 stage version of Brief Encounter – which doesn’t just ape David Lean’s 1945 movie but transforms it into a celebration of Laura’s repressed emotional life, and makes some pretty subversive comments on class in postwar Britain. Rice’s early career was almost certainly aided by the fact that she had already built a substantial body of well-received work in the regions and London venues such as Battersea Arts Centre by the time she started producing work in more high-profile London venues. Some critics were less than appreciative, especially those who had quite set ideas about what theatre was, rather than trying to imagine what theatre might be, and embrace devised work that used music, movement and puppetry in a ‘total theatre’ approach. 

This was demonstrated by the reception of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 movie, A Matter of Life and Death, staged by Rice at the invitation of the National in 2007. Many critics were disgruntled by Rice’s loving but irreverent approach to what they considered an iconic film. The then artistic director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, rounded on these critics by labelling them as “dead white males”. 

Hytner’s intervention was a reminder of just what a rarity Rice was, as a female director capable of filling big stages and filling auditoriums with audiences having a good time. As Rice herself has noted: “My work is very high art-low art.” It has often been fearless too, eschewing fashions and fads. That didn’t stop her facing controversy at the Globe when she became artistic director in 2015, a match that should have been made in heaven. Perhaps it was unwise to admit right at the start of her tenure that sometimes – like many people – she found Shakespeare quite difficult to understand, but it was characteristically brave and no-nonsense. For all the dreaminess of many of her productions, Rice has a down-to-earth attitude to making art, which may explain why she has crossed between the subsidised sector and the commercial sector with significantly more ease than many directors. 

But despite huge box office returns and much critical acclaim, within a year of joining the Globe she and the board were in conflict over her incorporation of electric light and amplified sound into productions. If there is one thing that Rice cannot compromise about it is her art, and there was a parting of the ways. Rice subsequently wondered out loud if it was her working-class background that saw a fissure opening up between her and the Globe’s board, which seemed oblivious of who they had employed as artistic director and how she worked. 

Some might have been crushed by the experience. Not Rice, who immediately founded her own touring company, Wise Children, which is based in Bristol and allows Rice to gather many of the practitioners she has worked with over the last 20 years and help train a new generation through the Wise Children school. Rice’s new initiative is in effect the creation of a new family. “What a joy it is to dance and sing”, exclaim the Chance sisters in Rice’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s gorgeous, gaudy novel. Whatever she does next, we can be assured that Rice will continue to dance a different dance, and she will do it with joy.