Preview: Wise Children

Adapting the joyful anarchy of Angela Carter’s Wise Children for stage is a perfect antidote for Emma Rice after she walked away from the Globe Theatre when it tried to rein in her artistic freedom

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It’s 23 April, Shakespeare’s birthday. In Brixton, Nora and Dora Chance – twin chorus girls born and bred south of the river – are celebrating their 75th birthday. Over the river in Chelsea, their father Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearian actor of his generation, turns 100 on the same day. As does his twin brother Peregrine. If, in fact, he’s still alive. And if, in truth, Melchior is their real father after all.

So the scene is set for Angela Carter’s Wise Children, a madcap family saga exploring duality, doubles and the divide between upper and working classes and high and low culture.

“Nora says: ‘We girls are illegitimate in every way,’ and that’s really how they feel all the way through their lives,” says theatre director Emma Rice, who has adapted the book for stage and is directing it as the first production of her eponymous theatre company.

The company also runs the School for Wise Children, which seeks to train a new generation of theatre makers from diverse backgrounds by offering 50 per cent of its places for free.

“I can’t lay claim to that illegitimacy but there have been things that have happened to me in life that sort of made me feel like an imposter – it’s terrible, isn’t it? – and that’s really what the school is about: supporting people with talent who might not normally be able to get into the industry.”

Rice learnt her trade with Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall where she began as an actor and went on to direct before becoming artistic director. Her productions are characterised
by a joyful anarchy not unfamiliar to readers of Carter.

In 2015 she was named new artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, which her predecessor Dominic Droomgoole said was “in keeping with the Globe’s traditions of boldness and adventure”. But Rice was evidently more than the theatre bargained for and, when it tried to rein her in, her artistic freedom was compromised. On Shakespeare’s birthday in 2018, she walked away.

“My time there was very, very tricky and I came up against all sorts of things that I’d never come up against. In the end you never know what it’s about but I certainly felt that my comprehensive education didn’t stand me in very good stead for that world,” says Rice.

The Chance sisters were the perfect figureheads for her next venture. “They’re absolute grafters, who grew up in absolute poverty. Show business had its glamorous times for them but they were never privileged, they were never the establishment, which their father was. So it’s a brilliant and joyful look at the class barrier.”

But Rice, who previously adapted Carter’s Nights at the Circus, says the adaptation of Wise Children was in the works well before her own clash with the established Shakespearian order.

“I hoped to do it at Kneehigh, then I was certain I’d do it at the Globe – I thought it would be fantastic, south of the river, on that stage, mentioning all the plays. Then when everything changed it just felt perfect.

“I just knew in the wake of that drama that this would be the first play I’d do on my own terms and that it would be the name of my company. It’s perfect because I’m at a point in my life where I need to be smart and I need to be clever but I need to not lose my innocence or my joy, so I thought being a wise child is perfect.”

Rice says fans of Carter’s book will find plenty to love in the play. The soundtrack was provided by the late author’s estate in the form of a CD of songs she listened to while writing, and including There May Be Trouble Ahead, My Heart Belongs To Daddy, and I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. The big five-act story has taken some editing down, so the Hollywood chapter, where the Chance sisters travel across the Atlantic for a shot at a Tinseltown take on Shakespeare, is gone.

“Films can do Hollywood, but I’ll stick with theatre,” says Rice. “And I made some big decisions about the characters I wanted to follow, which is really the direct lineage of
Nora and Dora Chance and their lives in the theatre. But I don’t think anybody who loves Wise Children will be shocked or surprised because the heart of it is very much intact.”

Wise Children was Carter’s last book, written following her diagnosis of lung cancer. She published it in 1991 and died the following year, aged 51. At the end of the book the Chance sisters make a decision to live for another 20 years. Rice, also 51, says she has goose pimples thinking about the significance of that, as she pushes forward into the next chapter of her life.

“It’s about regeneration, endurance and joy and all of that felt really perfect in this sort of middle part of my creative life,” she says. “I thought that I would be at the Globe 10 years and that was obviously such a huge job that would define where I lived and how I lived, but then it changed.

“The great thing about theatre is there’s always another choice, and the other choice tends to be better than the first, so I’m well trained in being resilient enough and creative enough to change paths. I did think the Globe would be the final chapter that I’d give myself to, but now I’m giving myself to something else.”

Wise Children is touring: Home in Manchester (26 Feb-2 March), York Theatre Royal (5-16 March), and Chester’s Storyhouse (19-23 March). Wisechildren.co.uk 

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