Q&A With Emma Rice About New Wise Children Production Blue Beard
When someone tells you not to look: open the bloody door!As director Emma Rice’s latest production – Blue Beard - embarks on a UK tour she shares why she wanted to bring this story to the stage, and why it had to happen now.
“I’ve actually never liked the story of Blue Beard. I love fairy tales, but this is one I’ve always avoided. I thought it was just about controlling women, telling them off for asking questions and being curious. But something changed a couple of years ago, and the story started to nag at me.
I have become more and more haunted by the regular chime of women being attacked, murdered and abused. Sarah Everard’s shocking murder and the ensuing chaos of her vigil captured the public’s imagination. However, for me, it was the murder of Zara Aleena that really brought home my anger and made me think about adapting Blue Beard. She was just walking home. A week later her family, friends, and people she would never know, met at the spot where she was killed and walked her memory home. This was the moment that I knew I wanted to walk Blue Beard’s victims home. I wanted to use my craft, my platform, and my experience to make a small difference.
Photo: Carmel King ©
I realised that I want to tell this story, not to understand or excuse Blue Beard, but to breathe life into the women he tried to control. I wanted to express not just the rage, grief and heartbreak so many of us feel at lives cut short, but also to celebrate brilliant living women in all their wild and surprising glory. So, my version of Blue Beard is very definitely about the women, about celebrating women and about saying enough is enough! We will not be afraid anymore.
Blue Beard has the weight and power of a classic drama - almost Shakespearean and most definitely Greek in structure, I hope audiences will feel entertained, moved and transported. We have found the subject matter very powerful in rehearsals and there have been lots of laughter and tears. I hope audiences will share the joy, the darkness, the fury and the hope. It certainly won’t be boring!”
Blue Beard is the fifth show Emma has made for her company Wise Children, which launched in 2018 after her very public departure from Shakespeare’s Globe. Before that, Emma ran the much-loved, and now closed, Kneehigh Theatre company. Many of Emma’s most successful works for Kneehigh were based on folk tales, like Blue Beard.
“After the shared trauma of lockdown and, in its wake, the long haul of getting back into the world, it felt like the right time to go back to my roots. Wonder tales (as I like to call them) are an enduring source of inspiration for me. Magical and universal, they are ripe for re-interpretation and reinvention. They challenge and delight in equal measure, and allow me to explore complex and important themes without having to be literal or naturalistic. They lend themselves to music and movement and I love them! With Blue Beard, I am back in my theatrical element.”
Music is key to Emma’s shows. As a practitioner of ‘devised theatre’, Emma always works closely with a composer, who is present throughout the rehearsal process, shaping, refining and reworking the music as the production develops.
Stephanie Hockley and Adam Mirsky
Rehearsal Photos: Steve Tanner©
“Music is shot through this magical tale. I’m working with my longtime friend and collaborator Stu Barker, who I also worked with on Brief Encounter, Tristan & Yseult, and many, many more. Stu is a composing genius, who knows just when a song, a sting or an underscore is needed. I’m particularly loving working on this show because almost all my actors are also musicians. This means the music comes straight out of the heart of the show: it is all performed live by this incredibly talented ensemble of actor-musicians. They jump seamlessly between playing and acting, and I marvel at their talent. The songs are dynamite, and I go to sleep with them running through my head and wake up singing them.”
In your version of the tale, the character of Blue Beard is a magician, and we see part of his magic show onstage. What kind of preparation did Tristan Sturrock, the actor who plays Blue Beard, choose to do to prepare for this role?
“My long-term collaborator and dear friend Tristan worked with several magicians in preparation for the show. He can now make coins vanish and cards appear, cut ladies in half and throw knives. It has been brilliant fun and creates fantastic ‘old school’ entertainment. I decided to make my Blue Beard a magician because it felt like a funny and surprising way to explore themes of lies, control and violence. The glamour of the magician’s assistant, mixed with the casual misogyny of these enduring acts creates a heady cocktail which is the perfect match for Blue Beard.”
Will this show be a difficult watch? With themes of male violence and control, can the audience expect a challenging evening?
Emma Rice and Katy Owen
Rehearsal Photos: Steve Tanner©
“Well, yes – in some ways. The production does not shy away from violence and its devasting effect. But it is also hopeful and empowering. I don’t think audiences will come away thinking everything’s awful and it’s never going to change; instead I want people to look these issues squarely in the eye and think: right, that’s it. The world does not have to be like this, and I feel inspired to do something about it.
It's also worth saying that I’m not a ‘naturalistic’ director. We use lots of different storytelling techniques to give the subject layers and nuance. This means a violent act could feature on stage as a dance, or a song. It won’t be graphic and unpleasant. Sometimes violence is suggested, sometimes it is shown in a metaphorical way and, at the end, we have a huge, bloody real life struggle.
Although the underlying themes are urgent and dark, the show is not all darkness by any means. Blue Beard pulses with stylish theatricality, gritty reality, and genuine emotion. There’s also comedy. Katy Owen, an actor I’ve worked with for many years, is one of the most brilliant comic actors working today, and she plays a nun at the Convent of the Fearful, Fucked and Furious – so you can imagine where that goes! Using music, dance, and storytelling, I want the production to seduce with high comedy, tragedy, magic, romance and just a sprinkle of spine-tingling horror. It’s a blockbusting rollercoaster!”
Previous works for Wise Children have included adaptations of classic novels, including Wuthering Heights, Malory Towers and Angela Carter’s Wise Children, after which the company was named. This is, in fact, the first time Emma has written, as opposed to adapting, a production for a very long time. Emma explains about the difference between the two processes.
Rehearsal Photos: Steve Tanner©
“I am actually still in the process of writing, so it might be a bit early to reflect! The piece has taken shape slowly, as I’ve been working on this project for over two years, and it has been a joyful and surprising path to this place. But it’s certainly no less complicated than adapting, because, although I could have chosen to write about anything, I seem to have chosen something quite complex! We have three narratives running through the piece: the magical world of Blue Beard, a modern world where we hear the story of the Lost Brother and Sister, and then there’s a framing narrative, set in the extraordinary world of the Convent of the Fearful, Fucked and Furious!
We have done several workshops in preparation for the show and that has allowed me to explore these three worlds with my actors and musicians. The narrative threads intertwine to bring meaning and perspective to the Blue Beard legend. It is a tricky structure but one that pays great dividends. I’ve relished taking charge of the material and this is certainly the most ambitious piece of writing I have ever done. It feels great to be pushing myself artistically - and yet still allowing myself to be just a little bit silly.”
Blue Beard is touring to Theatre Royal Bath, HOME Manchester, York Theatre Royal, the Lyceum Edinburgh, Birmingham Rep and the Battersea Arts Centre. Are you looking forward to visiting all those places?
“Oh! I love touring! I look forward to the food and architecture in Bath, the cool shops in Manchester, the museums in York, the magnificent natural beauty of Edinburgh, the Bullring in Birmingham and the fabulous moody and smoke damaged Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre!
Four of our tour venues (Manchester, York, Edinburgh and Birmingham) are co-producers on the show, meaning not only have they helped to finance it, but, more importantly, they have brought all their skills and experiences to the creation of the show, helping us to make something more wonderful, and better resourced, than we could have done alone.
It’s such a hard time for theatres, but these particular venues have all been superstars: backing us, believing in us, and making it possible for us to bring this show to their audiences. I can’t wait to get it out there!”
Emma recently celebrated five years since the launch of Wise Children by opening a new venue, The Lucky Chance, in Somerset. The Lucky Chance was originally a Methodist Chapel, and the company have renovated and transformed it into their creation space and a base for their training programmes.
“It’s been wonderful. In the true sense of the word. I begin to realise that this has always been my dream: to create a home for the work and the people that make it. The Lucky Chance is a place to create, to party, to take shelter in and to return to. It gives Wise Children roots and a beautiful space to welcome our diverse community of friends, audiences, neighbours and students alike. I couldn’t be prouder or happier. It is called The Lucky Chance because that is exactly what it is.”
Over Christmas, Wise Children threw open the doors of The Lucky Chance to the public, with a run of family show The Little Matchgirl & Happier Tales. The run included a week of shows for local primary school children, and the company gave away hundreds of tickets to community groups and local residents.
“It’s so important to have a home, and to grow a supportive community around that home. As the artist Joan Miró once said - in order to be truly universal, you must be truly local. And that says it all really. I want the work to be seen across the globe, but I know I need to look after my roots. If they are strong and healthy, everything else will flourish.”
Blue Beard is at
HOME Theatre Manchester
13 -14 February
York Theatre Royal,
February 27-March 8.
Box office 01904 623568 | yorktheatreroyal.co.uk