She parted company with Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in a blaze of publicity, but Emma Rice is back with a new company and she tells beyond why she couldn’t be happier.
Emma Rice could be forgiven for feeling just a teeny bit smug.
When we speak the first reviews have landed for the inaugural show of her new theatre company and they are peppered with adjectives like ‘joyous’, ‘racy’ and ‘spectacular’. One even described Rice’s adaptation of the Angela Carter novel Wise Children as ‘life-enhancing’.
“Oh gosh, it’s been incredible, who wouldn’t be pleased with those kind of reviews?,” says Rice. “When you get bad reviews, you tell yourself it doesn’t matter, but of course you want people to like your work.
“I am always a complete bag of nerves when a new show opens. It has always been the same and it probably always will be. There are some directors who chose not to sit in the auditorium on first night and I am completely envious of their ability to distance themselves to that degree.“I am compelled to watch my productions with everyone else and yet I find it agonising. I feel sorry for whoever has to sit next to me as I am constantly wriggling in my seat and dying with every breath.”Rice is no stranger to critical adulation. When she was at the helm of Cornish theatre company Kneeghigh she earned a reputation for staging shows which were smart, sparky and just a little bit sexy.
However, Wise Children follows a particular bruising period in the theatre director’s career. In 2016, Rice became artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. The reconstruction of the original Elizabethan playhouse is as much a tourist attraction as it is a theatre and it has earned a reputation for staging a very traditional kind of Shakespeare.
These stripped back productions have won a loyal audience, but Rice arrived at the South Bank venue determined to do things a little differently. Her opening production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream cast cabaret star Meow Meow as Titania and Helena became a man Helenus. Feathers were further ruffled when she commissioned a production of Cymbeline set in a world of drugs and gang warfare.
Audiences might have loved her irreverent approach to the Bard, but behind the scenes trouble was brewing. Some of the Globe’s board objected to her use of sound and lighting and when Rice refused to compromise her artistic vision, they went their separate ways.
When her departure after just two years in charge was announced most of the theatre world came out in support of Rice, accusing the Globe of slightly stuffy short-sightedness. It was, she says, a painful few months, but Rice is not one to linger on lost opportunities.
“I loved working at the Globe,” she says. “It is a fabulous venue and I am really proud of the work I did there. The reviews had been great and it felt like we were doing something really important. However, when it became clear what I was being asked to do, I had no choice. I had to go.”
After licking her wounds, Rice, who studied drama at the Guildhall, decided that she would set up her own company. It would give her the autonomy she had been denied at the Globe and like Kneehigh, it would have a base in South West while touring across the country.
“I have spent my entire career as a freelancer, so when the Globe ended it was just a case of ‘Ok, what do you really want to do next?’. I have been really lucky to have worked with some fabulous people over the years and starting my own company was a way of working with those I respect most.”
The company, also called Wise Children, has its home in Bristol and even before the first production opened it had been included on the Arts Council’s list of National Portfolio Organisations, receiving £475,000 annual funding until 2022.
The decision again caused disquiet in some quarters. Some accused the Arts Council of favouritism towards Rice and others questioned why the company’s first show was to premiere at the Old Vic rather than at a Bristol theatre.
Rice responded by publishing her application in full on the company’s website.
“We spent a long time on our bid application,” she says. “Yes, the company is new, but everyone involved in it has a long track record in the theatre. We put together a persuasive business plan and I wanted to show people that we had been awarded NPO status on merit.
“We never assumed that we would get funding and that’s why I had organised the Old Vic residency. That partnership meant that even if we hadn’t secured Arts Council funding the show would still go on.”
All the furore now seems a long time ago. Wise Children is currently on tour and it is the perfect production for Rice to usher in the next chapter in her career.
Carter’s story follows two families, the Hazards, a traditional acting family living in Chelsea and the Chances, a group of chorus girls based in Brixton. It’s a big bawdy tale brought to life with a large helping of carnivalesque.
“I have always loved Angela Carter’s world,” says Rice. “There is something wild about it and for a long time I had wanted to stage an adaptation of Wise Children.
“It’s a love letter to the theatre, but it’s also stinky, dirty and truthful. What more do you want from a night out?”
Wise Children, York Theatre Royal, to March 16th. 01904 623568, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk