The di­rec­tor who has adapted Brief En­counter tells Jane Corn­well why she has brought the star­crossed lovers to the stage

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Theatre -

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.

Brief En­coun­ters,

Knee­high Theatre’s Emma Rice, left; and Jim Stur­geon and Michelle Nightingale as Alec and Laura in above

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