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Emma the enabler

Emma Rice. Photo: Steve Tanner

“The project always leads the process,” explains Emma Rice, the co-artistic director of Kneehigh, over a necessary coffee in a Clapham cafe. It was 9am when we met weeks earlier, when she had a full day of rehearsals ahead of her for Tanika Gupta’s new play, The Empress, which she was directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

She had worked with Gupta before, on last year’s production of Bollywood musical Wah! Wah! Girls, but this project was rather different, a multi-stranded, vibrant production, which depicted the close relationship that developed between the ageing Queen Victoria and her proud young Indian servant Abdul Karim.

[pullquote]My days as a performer feel a long time ago. But I’m the sum of my experiences  and I understand that it can be very exposing to be a performer, so I do everything in my power to set them up to succeed[/pullquote]

“It’s a real epic piece in the Shakespearean line,” Rice told me. “There are three intertwining storylines – one is about Queen Victoria and her relationship with Karim; another is about Rani Das, a woman who is dumped at the docks and needs to make her way in England; and the third is about Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian member of parliament. They all start on the boat at the beginning, and we watch what happens as they arrive in London.”

Rice always wanted the piece to be more than a costume drama. “I wanted it to feel rough and relevant and contemporary – because it is,” she said. “We don’t know this history, we’ve been denied this history, and that was irresistible. The brilliant thing about this show is that the play represents the rehearsal room – we’re a fantastically diverse group of people. There’s a great symmetry between the piece and the process.”

Beatie Edney and Tony Jayawardena in The Empress. Photo: Steve Tanner
Beatie Edney and Tony Jayawardena in The Empress. Photo: Steve Tanner

Rice’s work for Kneehigh includes The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Cymbeline – which was also created in association with the RSC for its Complete Works festival – Midnight’s Pumpkin, an anarchic retelling of the Cinderella story, which was performed at the Battersea Arts Centre in London over the Christmas period, and Tristan and Yseult (derived from Celtic legend and medieval poetry), one of the company’s best-loved productions, which returns for a UK tour in June.

Much of her work for the company is created at its Cornwall base, a collection of barns on the south Cornish coast. The atmosphere generated in this place forms part of the working process. “The barns are really special,” says Rice. “They’re rough and rural but they’re very practical as well, as we tend to eat together and sit up at night, which means we spend a lot of time together, talking about the work.

“Cornwall is amazing and I miss it, but you can create a similar environment elsewhere. Without forcing it, we are spending a lot of time together in London. I always start the day with a lot of singing and movement. It’s not the same, but it works. It’s still good.”

At the same time as she was working on The Empress, Rice’s earlier show for Kneehigh, an adaptation of the much-loved Steptoe and Son, was having its London run at the Lyric Hammersmith. The two projects were strikingly different. Rice was drawn to making a stage version of the sitcom, despite never being a huge fan of it as a child.

“I was fascinated by [father and son characters Albert and Harold Steptoe], a little bit frightened, and they were always on a little bit after my bedtime,” she says. But as an adult she found there was something about that world – a particular dynamic that struck a chord, the family interplay and the sense of people being stuck with one another. “I am very interested in the culture of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s the time of my parents’ youth and my earliest memories, and something about the series resonates really strongly. The scripts are brilliant, absolutely astonishing, and I really hope people will look at [original sitcom writers] Galton and Simpson in a different light after seeing this.”

Rice has spoken in previous interviews about the congregational power of theatre, its ability to speak to a basic human need to share, gather and connect. “I really hold dear to the importance of coming together, singing together, moving together,” she says. “I think it really does make you happier, sharing meaningful experiences with the people around you.”

The company in rehearsal for The Empress. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
The company in rehearsal for The Empress. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

She initially trained as a performer at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama before spending time in Poland working with the Gardzienice Theatre Association. I ask if her background influences her approach as a director. “My days as a performer feel a long time ago. But, yes, they still influence me. I’m the sum of my experiences. I’m naturally an enabler, and I understand that it can be very exposing to be a performer, that it’s a big deal, so I do everything in my power to set them up to succeed and to support them.”

The conversation inevitably turns to funding cuts and the impact they are having and will continue to have. “I feel the world changing around us. I really, really worry,” says Rice. “These are frightening times – you’re taking away the opportunities around artists to develop.” She adds that Kneehigh is “doing what we need to keep our heads above water. It’s forcing us to be better business people.” The company is bringing back old shows – the return of Tristan and Yseult being a case in point – and is, she says, “working very hard to make sure those feel fresh and not pale imitations. We’re touring more and more to keep the company going. But my feeling is that it will be more devastating in five years’ time than it is now to us as a company, and that ultimately the nation’s artistic life will suffer”.

As tough as things are at the moment, she is more concerned at the long-term consequences, and worries that the next generation of artists are “really going to struggle”.

Tristan and Yseult is touring during the summer, beginning at West Yorkshire Playhouse from June 14-22


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