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Emma Rice, 2018
© Andy Parsons

Emma Rice: ‘I will not have the joy knocked out of me’

Former Shakespeare’s Globe boss Emma Rice holds no grudges as she bounces back with new theatre company Wise Children

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

‘I’d quite like Emma Rice not to exist any more,’ says Emma Rice.

She is mercifully speaking figuratively rather than literally, but it has been a brutal couple of years.

Long-term leader of tirelessly inventive Cornish eccentrics Kneehigh Theatre, Rice was a surprise hire in 2016 as artistic director of the Globe. Her big-hearted but subversive approach led to a sell-out first season and critical acclaim. But rows with the Globe’s apparently entirely joyless board over her use of electric lights and amplified sound forced her out of the job after just two years.

Today, she is pretty Zen about it. At the time, she freely admits, it was awful. ‘It felt like a catastrophe, and there’s great clarity that comes out of that. I think I’m tougher and clearer and more ambitious.’

Shortly after her departure was announced, she launched the next phase of her career
with her new theatre company, Wise Children.

It takes its name from its debut production: a stage adaptation of the great Angela Carter’s towering final novel about a peculiar theatre dynasty, as seen through the eyes of dancer sisters Dora and Nora Chance.

Emma Rice is back, but she stresses it’s as part of a team: ‘I just want to be Wise Children now.’

‘Wise Children’, the book, is chocka with Shakespeare references. Had you intended it for the Globe?

‘I had – I’d been commissioned by the National Theatre and then the Globe happened and I thought it would be perfect there. Then the Globe stopped and it couldn’t be better for the birth of my company at the Old Vic, this sort of independent theatre that’s got such a fabulous feminist history. I do feel that life looks after you.’

Most people would say Carter is unstageable, but this is the second of her books you’ve adapted…

‘I quite like the unstageable because it means you have to be creative and you have to be brave. The well-made play makes my soul die a bit because I don’t know what I can bring to it, whereas an impossible novel tickles my fancy. I feel it’s been waiting for somebody to take it in – it’s about a love affair with the theatre: it’s an amazing book that explores why it is we dance and sing, but also the price of it.’

How do you look back on your time at the Globe?

‘It was 99 percent fantastic. It was such a good match and I loved making work there, loved the audience, loved what we did socially, loved what I did with the team – so ultimately I take that away. If somebody had said to me “Do you want to have [only] two years at the Globe and have total freedom?”, I’d still have bitten their hands off. You have to forget the 1 percent of what happened. It changed my life and gave me Wise Children.’

Has the experience changed your relationship with London?

‘Yeah: I took out an enormous mortgage, I bought a flat, Brexit happened, I lost my job, my flat plummeted in price, I lost a massive amount of money, and it took me a year to sell it. I won’t come back to London, I won’t live in London again.’

Your shows have been very concerned with Englishness. How do you feel about Brexit?

‘Oh, I feel like everybody else, I feel like the world’s crumbled to pieces and we’re walking through the bits of it. That, and #MeToo, and what happened to me at the Globe, has definitely distilled my thinking about things. I’ll always have a [diverse] mix of actors on stage now, and I didn’t at Kneehigh. I feel like I wasn’t a fantastic feminist in my twenties and thirties, and I think it’s time I set that right.’

Your work has always been fundamentally optimistic – do you still feel that way?

‘I do, I can’t get rid of it. And that doesn’t mean terrible things don’t happen or that you don’t look them in the eye, but I do feel the abiding thing that runs through Angela Carter’s work: “What a joy it is to dance and sing.” I will not have the joy knocked out of me, I just won’t.’

‘Wise Children’ is at The Old Vic. Oct 8-Nov 10.

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