Emma Rice

Classics Corner: Emma Rice on 'Brief Encounter'

The theatre director explains why she adapted David Lean’s great romance for the stage

Phil de Semlyen

'I remember first watching “Brief Encounter” when I was off school as a kid – it was one of about five films BBC Two used to run in the ’70s. When I started adapting it for the stage my gran told me how much she’d hated it when it came out. The idea that a woman would consider leaving her family to be with another man was shocking. Noël Coward’s script tapped into this universal, powerful idea and people were cross with that: the fabric of society would fall apart if everyone ran away! It was written by a gay man in 1936, so the power of an impossible love is very, very strong at the centre of it.

'Turning it into a play was a very instinctive decision for me. I remember meeting a producer about a different project and my eyes lighting on “Brief Encounter” on this wall of DVDs. He asked if I wanted to do that instead and I just said, “Yeah!” I think I brought my own personal confusion into it. I was 40, I’d had one marriage fail and I was struggling in another relationship. Some people dismiss this film because the actors talk so clipped in it, but its moral compass was very powerful for me. It was originally a one-act Noël Coward play called “Still Life” set in a British tearoom and David Lean put the most dramatic, emotional Russian music – Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No 2” – next to it. He was saying: “This is not insignificant. It matters.” It’s genius filmmaking. 

Training days: Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter

'I’ve never found Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard’s acting stilted. Their fragility and integrity just burns through the screen. When she describes her life as “drawing away from me” it breaks my heart. I know every line of Coward’s script. I also read his poetry and song lyrics when I was adapting “Brief Encounter” and really fell in love with him: not romantically, but as a complicated, funny, slightly tortured soul. I’ve often thought: “My goodness, I wish he was my friend.”’ 

Kneehigh’s production of Noël Coward’s 'Brief Encounter', adapted and directed by Emma Rice, is on at the Empire Cinema, Haymarket. Head to www.timeout.com/brief for discounted tickets.

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