Written by Angela Carter
Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice
In 2004, I saw Emma Rice’s version of a Greek classic: ‘The Bacchae.’ It was one of those performances that changed the way I thought about what theatre could be. In 2006, I saw Emma Rice’s version of Angela Carter’s ‘Nights at The Circus.’ This time I was 16 and I still remember being totally absorbed in this absurd fantastic world she and the Kneehigh team created.
In the aftermath of Rice, in and then out, of The Globe for ‘unconventional’ use of light and sound and starting a new company, Wise Children, I was intrigued to see what I would make of her second Angela Carter adaptation. However, over ten years after I saw ‘Nights at The Circus’ my own tastes and ideas of what theatre can be go far beyond my those first hints of something ‘unconventional.’
True to form, this performance sings to an Emma Rice hymn sheet. Many of the cast are Kneehigh regulars, including their very own artistic director Mike Shepherd, the set is colourful and handcrafted in style (designed by Vicki Mortimer) and the whole performance is directed with precision and yet doesn’t take itself too seriously.
It’s playful, joyful nature mislead me in the beginning and after the first half, I was only expecting a light, entertaining musical. However, by the end I saw the whole production differently. As the female characters face the male characters and ask “Why are you still here?” there is a punch of the darker side and the parts of this complicated story fall into place (we realise that what was implied earlier in the story was, in fact, a reference to child abuse.) Rice has cleverly layered Carters celebration of being female through her re-writing and knitted it together with costumes, set and performance that all have a feminine quality, to create something a lot more complex than I had originally thought.
The two women at the centre of the story are Dora and Nora- twin sisters, whose Father had long gone by the time they were born and whose Mother died shortly after she had given birth. It follows the two, through all stages of their lives and we see them throughout, pining after Father figures who consistently let them down. The play is set in 1989, when the two women are 75 and as they look on after their Father and abusive Uncle leaving the stage: the power of Angela Carter’s novel is bought to life in Emma Rice’s play.
So, whilst ‘Wise Children’ is not ‘unconventional’ or innovative, it is a celebration of two great storytellers and a testament to the work that Emma Rice has and continues to make.