IN THE WRONG SKIN
The director who has adapted Brief Encounter tells Jane Cornwell why she has brought the starcrossed lovers to the stage
LUNCH break in an upstairs rehearsal room near London Bridge and actors and crew are milling about: swigging water, strumming instruments, processing the morning’s session. With a change of cast and just weeks to go before Kneehigh Theatre’s hit production of Brief Encounter opens in Australia, the pressure is on to make it as inventive and absorbing as it ever was.
And was it ever: ‘‘ A first-class return to romance,’’ Britain’s The Daily Telegraph declared of a show that debuted in 2008 and has wowed Broadway and London’s West End. ‘‘ Exquisite,’’ swooned The New York Times.
‘‘ The work has changed a lot over the years,’’ says director and adaptor Emma Rice, a no-nonsense 40-something with merry eyes and a shock of peroxide blonde hair. ‘‘ We’ve distilled it down into the perfect gem.’’
Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter is a multimedia work that combines elements of Noel Coward’s 1936 one-act play Still Life with footage from David Lean’s 1945 iconic movie, for which Coward wrote the script. The story is the same: respectable housewife Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey, an idealistic, married doctor, fall for each other in the tearoom at Milford Junction station. But between and around their clipped liaisons, all sorts of magic happens.
Actors run through a slit in a giant screen and appear in the black-and-white film. A toy train makes its way across the stage; a stuffed dog strains at its leash; Laura’s beautifully brought up children are played by puppets. Two other couples — a snooty cafe manageress and a comic station guard, a childlike waitress and her oafish beau — dance funny waltzes, sing songs by Coward and flirt outrageously.
‘‘ I hadn’t worked with film very much before this,’’ says Rice, once we’re ensconced in a quiet space: on an old chaise longue at the foot of a set of stairs. ‘‘ I wanted to tap into our experiences of the cinema, where we go to be told stories, where we can sit up the back, go to the loo, have a snog, eat popcorn’’ — she flashes a smile. ‘‘ We’re breaking down the barriers that we’re so armed with in modern life. This is a show that makes people laugh and cry.’’
One of Britain’s most forward-thinking touring theatre companies, Kneehigh has been creating revisionist takes on fairytales and the classics since 1980, when a bunch of untrained performers — students, farmers, tradies — got together in Cornwall in southern England and began creating offbeat theatre in unusual spaces ranging from marquees and village halls to ruined castles and woodland footpaths.
‘‘ I was in a version of Antigone that we did in a clay pit in Cornwall,’’ says Rice, who joined Kneehigh as an actress in 1994 after studying theatre at London’s Guildhall and briefly in Poland with radical experimentalists the Gardzienice Theatre Association. ‘‘ It all got a bit rank by the end,’’ she adds. ‘‘ It didn’t help that we were using motorbikes.’’
Indeed, were this not the height of the tourist season, and had Australian actresses Michelle Nightingale and Kate Cheel not flown all the way from Adelaide to rehearse their roles as Laura and Beryl the waitress, we’d all be a five-hour train journey away in Cornwall, where Kneehigh’s rehearsal base is a set of heritage-listed barns on a coastal cliff.
Decades spent looking out at the sea has maintained the company’s hippie aesthetic and nurtured its rule-breaking spirit.
‘‘ For six months of the year we eat together, we work outside, we light fires,’’ she says. ‘‘ It’s great to be in an environment where to misbehave is absolutely required.’’
It’s in Cornwall, a county with its own Tate gallery and a long history of international cultural exchange, that Rice has created productions including her award-winning 2002 directorial debut, The Red Shoes, which toured Australia in 2011.
Her choices tend to be personal, instinctive. Work such as Pandora’s Box, based on Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, and Nights at the Circus, an adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, have been presented with a strong female perspective. Tristan & Yseult, a deconstruction of a Cornish legend that variously featured birdwatching, balloons, Wagner and Roy Orbison (and which Company B performed at the Sydney Festival in 2006) was fired by memories of heartbreak and, in part, by Rice’s anger at society’s obsession with beauty.
The Red Shoes came just after the disintegration of her marriage: ‘‘ I read the Hans Christian Andersen tale and wept. It was about the bargains that we make with ourselves, which is how I felt at the time,’’ she says.
In recent years, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre have come calling, catapulting Kneehigh into the big league. There have been co-productions with the RSC of Shakespeare’s lesser known play Cymbeline and, earlier this year, of Tanika Gupta’s play The Empress, which depicts the ageing Queen Victoria’s close friendship with her young Indian servant Abdul Karim.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Staged in 2006, Kneehigh’s non-purist Cymbeline divided audiences. There were walkouts and several scathing reviews. Rice took heart, however, from a note left under the windscreen wiper of the company’s van.
‘‘ It said something like, ‘ Cymbeline is the most refreshing, brilliant, fantastic night out so f . . k the critics’,’’ she recalls with a smile. ‘‘ Then more and more people started leaving notes and the van ended up becoming like a noticeboard for the whole run, which was such a beautiful thing to have happen.’’
The critical mauling she received for her adaptation of the 1946 Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death, which opened at the National Theatre in 2007, was a different matter. London’s largely male assemblage of long-time theatre critics stuck their knives into what they considered a self- indulgent remake, prompting the National’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, to start a furious blogosphere debate in Rice’s defence.
‘‘ That whole episode was soul-destroying,’’ she says now. ‘‘ I didn’t know how to go forward. But I had a meeting with [West End producer] David Hugh, who offered me Peter Pan, and I told him it didn’t feel quite right. As we hugged good-bye I found myself staring at a shelf full of DVDs.’’ In their midst was a copy of Brief Encounter. ‘‘ I told him that actually, Brief Encounter was the sort of project I wanted to do and he asked me if I was serious.’’
She pauses. ‘‘ It was a really instinctive moment,’’ she continues after a beat or two. ‘‘ I’d watched the film as a child on a rainy Sunday afternoon and I think it just lodged in my psyche somewhere.’’
Once she’d viewed the movie again through adult eyes, Rice recognised the universal nature of Laura and Alec’s unconsummated love affair. ‘‘ It’s our animal condition,’’ she says with a shrug. ‘‘ We try to be monogamous but we fail. Even if you’re lucky enough to never have fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t, you probably have a partner that has or parents that have.
‘‘ Coward charts it all so beautifully, from that first stage of excitement and liberation to the regret and pain and despair. And then when you think that he was gay [in the 30s] . . .’’ She shakes her head. ‘‘ As I keep saying to the actors, this is a piece about self, not about romance. It’s about the relationships the characters have with themselves.’’
That Coward gave Laura a backstory in Cornwall was an unexpected gift: ‘‘ It wasn’t until I read the text that I picked up the bit where Laura talks about swimming in the Cornish seas as a child; as a Cornish company, there was no way I wasn’t going to use this.’’
Water is a recurring motif in Rice’s production: waves crash onscreen to the turbulent strains of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2. Laura and Alec fall out of a rowing boat with a tiny splash that’s thrown up from a saucepan. In a particularly moving sequence, Laura kneels onstage while her inner self — that wild Cornish girl — swims underwater, onscreen.
‘‘ I read a lot of selkie folk tales while I was making this piece,’’ Rice says. ‘‘ In these stories a fisherman falls in love with a selkie — a seal woman — he sees dancing on some rocks, having slipped out of her sealskin. He takes her home and they have children and live a respectable contented life until one day she finds her old skin, kisses her kids goodbye and dives back into the sea.
‘‘ It’s this radical notion that no matter what pressures are on you, you cannot live in the wrong skin, in the wrong place. In the same way that The Red Shoes was about the self and creativity, Brief Encounter is exploring spiritual freedom.’’ And love? Surely it’s also about love? ‘‘ Of course! I’m very interested in love. I don’t believe these people are in any way victims. None of us are victims,’’ she says with a smile, ‘‘ but we can review the bargains we make and escape in a profound way.’’
Brief Encounter at the Adelaide Festival Centre, September 10-28; then Canberra, Melbourne (as part of the Melbourne Festival), Sydney, Wollongong and Perth.
Kneehigh Theatre’s Emma Rice, left; and Jim Sturgeon and Michelle Nightingale as Alec and Laura in above