“It was on Shakespeare’s birthday,” says Emma Rice, remembering the April day in 2018 when she walked away from the Globe theatre. After only two seasons as its artistic director, she had received what amounted to a vote of no confidence from the board that had appointed her, and her departure caused an outcry in the world of theatre. “The heavens opened as I left,” she remembers, “and something washed away at that moment. I had such a sense of the narrative of my life…”
We are sitting in an office in Bristol’s Spike Island, the building in which Rice’s new company, Wise Children, is installed (about which more in a moment). Two years on, Rice looks splendid, with exclamatory hair, silver hoop earrings and festive yellow clogs. She is feeling “euphoric” at having started a new chapter. Yet her eyes have a complicated look as the subject of the Globe looms: sadness mixed with humour. She has barely talked about it publicly since she left. “I feel gratitude and relief that two years of transition are over. Not that I wanted what happened to happen – I didn’t.” She loved the space, audience and excitement at the Globe: “I will miss it until the day I die.”
The reason offered for her departure was that the powers that be did not like her unconventional use of sound and lighting (her opening production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a disco feel – David Bowie as a garnish to Shakespeare). The Globe prides itself on its natural effects, but she knew, as an open letter she posted on the Globe’s website revealed, that this was about more than lighting: her artistic vision was no longer trusted. She could not continue. “My artistic process is all I have,” she says.
“I felt like Polonius behind the curtain,” she admits, laughing sadly. What she means is that when they stabbed her, they had not intended to finish her off. “They were surprised when I didn’t get up. That’s my guess. When I started working at the Globe, I came on too strong. I met the space with artistic frenzy, it was so exciting – the lights, the sounds. I don’t think they imagined I’d leave. They thought I’d accept new guidelines, that I’d want the job more than my practice. My guess is they were shocked when I said: ‘Absolutely not’. I felt like Tina Turner. [Turner refused to give up her name in the divorce courts: ‘I’ve worked too hard for it.’] You’ve one path in life, which is your integrity, your vision, your soul. It was never an option to stay.”
One of the many lovely things about Rice is her openness – she does not police herself. “I’m no politician,” she says. Indeed not; she would be a liability in PR. Her thoughtless comments about Shakespeare making her sleepy, and finding The Archers easier to digest, are referred to frequently. I would be sorry to have just done so again, were it not that her uncensored quality is also a strength. She is warm, sparky, energetic, her own woman – a spirit reflected in her work.
The Observer’s theatre critic, Susannah Clapp, argues that Rice – lighting issues aside – understood the “deeper spirit of the Globe, the immediacy between audience and actors”, and describes her departure as “a puzzle and a scandal”. At her best, Rice’s productions were “exuberant, rambunctious, joyful”, says Clapp, adding: “I don’t know who the Globe thought they were appointing.”
Rice’s own conclusion is that the decision to sack her was “probably a little bit of a mistake – I don’t know, but this is how I piece it together for my own sanity. It was very shocking because, from my perspective, it had all gone so well. I didn’t see it coming because audience figures were astronomical, reviews great and a fizz was happening around the building.”
In fact, reviews of her productions and the commentary about her were mixed – including a particularly unbridled attack from Richard Morrison in the Times, who said she was “wrecking” the Globe with productions of “perversity, incongruity and disrespect”. Yet she has never had a shortage of champions. Lyn Gardner in the Guardian protested that her departure proved the Globe was no more than a “part of the heritage industry”. Was this fair comment?
“I go quiet only because I know all the players. There are lots of warring factions at the Globe and that spreads all the way up to the board. I walked into a divided organisation with conflicting ambitions. It had been my intention, during my tenure, to do something about that. And no, the Globe does not want to be a heritage site. But it doesn’t know what it wants to be.”
It’s a colossal relief to her that she now captains her own ship. Wise Children has been awarded National Portfolio status (NPOS are the 831 organisations that will, between 2018-22, share £409m a year from Arts Council England). Wise Children is not only her company’s name, it will be her first show, an adaptation of Angela Carter’s final novel, to be staged at the Old Vic this autumn. As former artistic director of the pioneering company Kneehigh, Rice has proved herself a dynamic interpreter of fiction and film: The Red Shoes, based on Powell and Pressburger’s film, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and, Kneehigh’s greatest hit, Brief Encounter, a multimedia staging, now revived at London’s Empire cinema. She also directed Carter’s Nights at the Circus in 2006.
“I love Angela Carter,” says Rice, who sees Wise Children as Carter’s “love letter to the theatre”. In the same breath, though, it needs to be said that Carter had a love/hate relationship with acting. She shuddered at “that dreadful spectacle of painted loons in the middle distance making fools of themselves”. Yet in Wise Children, she revels in thespian survival. The joy is in the calculated freedom of the prose – its déshabillé. Characters are frequently discovered in the altogether or in silk undies. Tawdry chorus girls, in their 70s, “can still lift a leg higher than your average dog”. Carter sums up the chaos of the touring life in a sentence: “greasepaint, gaslight, horseshit, coal smoke, railways – change at Crewe on Sundays”.
Rice was to have directed Wise Children at the National but “it fell between Nick [Hytner] and Rufus [Norris]”. She then hoped to do it at the Globe (the novel is irresistibly Shakespearean). She now sees Wise Children as her talisman, because Carter was in love with illusion – making it up, making do. Costumes and props may fail but if – and it is a big if – the performance holds, all will be well. Rice feels she needs the audacity, obstinacy and innocence that many of Carter’s characters possess to run her own company. Rice is, I think, a wise child herself. “Reinvention is important,” she says, “because the only certain thing is change. So the only thing to worry about is how you manage it, because it happens whether you want it to or not.”
She says she feels elated and scared. She seems unable altogether to avoid choppy waters: the funding of the company has made waves: “I don’t know how I got to be so controversial,” she reflects. To acquire National Portfolio status from the Arts Council, you need to show “track record and budgets”. Her critics felt that because hers was a new company, she had been given a leg-up. She countered this by making her application public. Her website (charmingly designed as a book in which you keep turning over a new leaf) explains the proudest part of her vision: a Bristol-based Wise Children school for alternative theatre. “Because where do you go in the UK to study that? You go to Paris.” For every paid place, the company will subsidise another. There will be visiting tutors and intensive weekends. They have already kicked off the experiment with a first module on music for ensemble theatre – a huge hit. “I really want to give something back,” Rice says.
No sooner had the first round of protests about the new company died down than a second followed: why should she be financed by the south-west if Wise Children was opening in London? It is a fair question, she agrees, “but I had not known whether I would get any funding when I negotiated the partnership with the Old Vic in London”. She is adamant her company is and will remain, rooted in the south-west.
Rice is 50 now, and rejoicing in the improved perspective age can offer. She grew up in Nottingham, where her father was a lecturer in personnel management, her mother a social worker. “I was a classic second child – as most actors are. Second children work out how to get into the spotlight and to be invisible.” Rice was good at both. She was drawn to theatre because, growing up, she suffered a major loss. “My best friend died when I was 11. It changed me for ever.” That early bereavement meant she could not fantasise about life. “I was looking for somewhere to express grief and joy. This is what theatre gives me to this day.” She clasps her hands together, as if making opposing emotions meet. As a “good girl”, she says, theatre gives her “a licence to transgress”. When she was young, she hoped to be a ballet dancer. “Well, that was hardly going to come to pass,” she laughs, waving dismissively at her body. Carter has also been important to Rice in her feminism, in her expression of what it is to be in a female body. Clapp believes that a Carter work directed by Rice is “plumb in the middle of the feminist project. Neither is the least doctrinaire, both are full of juicy independence.”
After studying drama at the Guildhall, Rice showed independence as a young woman in her 20s, training in Poland with Gardzienice, a company founded by Włodzimierz Staniewski. His motto – “No beauty without pain” – is one she resists. On her return, she profited from working alongside Katie Mitchell. But the gamechanger, she says, was auditioning for Kneehigh in Cornwall: “That day is branded into my soul.” She took a train to “the end of the line” and was “picked up in a van by these crazy, sunburned mavericks”. The chemistry between her newly acquired eastern European seriousness and their commedia dell’arte worked. “They taught me how to clown.”
Having been an actor is key to the way she directs: “I’m still a show-off and understand the relationship of actor to the audience. When I commit to an actor, it is my responsibility to make them brilliant, to take away fear. In my rehearsal room, there is just enabling.” She is an improviser, looking for actors who will play. She is maternal. As in the Bing Crosby song, she accentuates the positive, eliminates the negative: “We are all so bloody sensitive that a misplaced insult or criticism can knock people for days, weeks, even years.”
She knows what she is talking about. Her production of A Matter of Life and Death (2007) at the National got panned mainly by male critics, and provoked Nicholas Hytner to rail against the critical community as “dead white men”. “My hero, yes!” she exclaims. “This links up with the Globe. There are gatekeepers of theatre in this country. I have never fitted in, so I see them clearly. Most of the gatekeepers went to Oxbridge and read classics and have similar taste in theatre.” What she has also said, on Radio 4’s Front Row, is that her departure from the Globe was about class as much as gender, about getting two A-levels from her Nottingham comprehensive. But she now acknowledges that criticism from any quarter can be painful: “Thank God I’m not on social media, because I don’t think I’d have survived what happened over the last two years. My luddite tendencies have protected me.”
She has lived in Bristol for eight years. Her father was a Bristolian, her grandmother worked at the box office of the Hippodrome (and sometimes danced). She loves the city because it is “peaceful and happening”. She can catch a ferry from Bristol Temple Meads to her house, where she lives with her partner (his two children come and go). “But we are not going to get into partners, are we? I have a slightly colourful history. I was with Mike Shepherd and now my partner is a sound designer whom I met on Brief Encounter, but I’d probably rather not go any further into the glorious men in my life. I am deeply connected to them – I still work with all of them.”
Rice is a hard worker and a dreamer: “I see people working like mad on trains. But I’m very happy to look out of the window. It is important to think: ‘What if?’ and to leave space for surprise. It is in down times that ideas come. People who know me well describe it as lolling.” She has a “lolling room” at home with a picture, The Dreaming Chair, by a friend, Beth Carter, in which a doodling girl gives dream horses their freedom.
This brings us back to Angela Carter and her ability to see the dreamlike and carnivalesque in ordinary life. Rice sees life as a “collage”. She believes it is “much stranger than fiction. Only this morning, I heard a kerfuffle, looked outside and said: ‘They’re moving rocks into a van.’ I still don’t know why. I’m happy not to know.” But then she adds: “We’re all so busy achieving. Look sideways and you’ll find that it is only by leaving the path that you see.”
Wise Children opens at the Old Vic, London on 8 October