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Emma Rice on the joy of cinema, diversity, and her next dramatic chapter

Emma Rice is a theatrical force of nature. As Joint Artistic Director of Cornish-based theatre company Kneehigh, she became known for her visually inventive storytelling, mounting irreverent takes on classics like The Red Shoes, Tristan & Yseult, and A Matter of Life & Death. With an unabashedly populist appeal, many of the shows she created at Kneehigh went on to tour around the world for numerous years after they premiered.

More recently, she’s been shaking things up as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe with acclaimed productions including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romantics Anonymous. Her name hit the headlines when she was asked to step down from her post, following controversy about her use of artificial lighting and amplified sound at the venue - a turn of events lamented by many in the theatre world, who recognised the positive steps she’d made towards bringing new audiences to Shakespeare’s work.

Now she’s going back to her roots: launching a brand-new company based in the South West, Wise Children, and revisiting one of her all-time greatest hits, Brief Encounter. Amber Massie-Blomfield caught up with her about the timeless appeal of David Lean’s film, the need for greater diversity in the arts, and the freedom of entering a brand-new chapter.

Amber Massie-Blomfield: Last year Time Out ranked Brief Encounter as one of the greatest British films ever made. Why do you think it continues to resonate more than 70 years after it was first on screen?

Emma Rice:
There is something profoundly universal about Brief Encounter. It charts love in all its stages; first love, second-time-round love, impossible love. And it does it with tenderness, wit and truth. With its British reserve, it gently winds the audience into the characters’ lives, and the heartbreak is palpable. There can’t be many of us who haven’t fallen in love with the wrong person or lost someone dear. This is why we all identify with this deceptively simple piece. And I never forget that this extraordinary piece was written by Noël Coward.  A gay man in 1938, he knew what it was to fall into impossible love and to live with a secret painful truth. Whenever I hear the words to A Room with a View, my heart breaks for all the men and women who were forced by society to hide their true identities and feelings. Brief Encounter never fails to deliver an epic emotional punch and to inspire - not in spite of, but because of, its apparent domesticity.

Amber: The world has changed a lot in the decade since your production of Brief Encounter premiered in 2008. Why do you think it is important that audiences see it now?

It is a great night out. It is comforting and challenging at the same time. It reminds us that life is not full of absolutes and that we humans are frail creatures. At a time when politics are polarising and the world is divided, I think it is important to remind ourselves of the complexity and delicacy of our personal and political struggle. It is a cry from the heart and a challenge to our moral compass. These are things that we all need in 2018.
Amber: Rather than in a theatre, Brief Encounter is being presented in London at the Empire Cinema, Haymarket. What does this setting lend the performance that is distinct from a theatre?

The cinema is a much more relaxed experience! It is a treat, it is sexy and it’s romantic. You don’t talk about snogging on the back row of a theatre, but in a cinema… it would be rude not to! By placing Brief Encounter in a cinema it also nods to the DNA of the piece; it was one of the most iconic films ever made. I want to play with the audience’s cultural memory and combine forms in a surprising way. Film is referenced throughout the piece and is a very happy bedfellow with some of the most theatrical, musical and playful work you can imagine. The cinema is part of the fun and part of the history. It allows the audience to enter the imaginative world with fresh eyes.

Amber: Your new company, Wise Children, is ‘firmly and deeply rooted in the South West’, which is where you began your career with Kneehigh. Is there a sense that you are reconnecting with your own creative roots with Wise Children, and if so, how?

Definitely! This is a rare and precious fresh start, which few of us get the chance to do. I was 50 in August and it was exhilarating to think what next? What matters? What is the dream? I have lived in the South West all my adult life, so Wise Children was always going to be there. It suits me to be a little off centre to look out, and up, and away from London whilst I work. I look forward to looking at the sky, lighting fires, swimming in the sea and thinking surprising thoughts again!

Amber: You’ve spoken about barriers you’ve experienced because of your working-class background. What does theatre need to do differently to ensure it belongs to those from all backgrounds?

I am not working class and never have been! I am happily and luckily middle class. My Mum was a social worker and my Dad a Polytechnic lecturer and I had a childhood filled with love and culture. I did go to a rough old comprehensive and did only get 2 A levels, but I would never describe myself as working class. My comment was about ‘Class’ in a broader sense. The upper and educated class still hold much of the power. They have a network and shorthand that can feel impenetrable if you are from a different background. We need to create access for all sorts of different people to lead and participate in the Arts. It is not, however, only down to theatre to solve this problem. I built my career with the help of unemployment benefit and housing benefit. I was enabled by the state to find my way, experiment and discover my own unique form of creativity. In the scheme of things it was only a 2 year investment I needed and I have repaid this debt tenfold over the thirty years of work that followed. The government and the Arts need to work together to offer routes into professions that can feel barred to many at the moment.

Amber: As you come to the end of your tenure at Shakespeare’s Globe, what excites you most about the new chapter you are entering?

Freedom, fun, ambition and fearlessness. I have nothing to fear and everything to look forward to. I intend to change the world, show by show, song by song and dance by dance!

Amber: Lastly, who would play you in the movie of your life?

My oldest and best friend, Dot Atkinson who is currently smashing it out of the park in Mum, BBC Two! She would get my humour, get my Nottingham roots and be the slightly better version of me that she has always been!

Kneehigh Theatre & Old Vic Theatre present
Brief Encounter
Until 2 September 2018
Empire Cinema, Haymarket

EXCLUSIVE OFFER: £52.50 seats reduced to £35
Valid for all performances 3 March - 15 April 2018 (excluding press performance on 11 March 2018.) Tickets must be booked and paid for by 30 March 2018. Use Promo code: RIOT when booking online via


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