Vibrant and Deadly: Two Contrasting Shows

Emma Rice’s Wise Children and Coward’s A Song at Twilight

Last week I travelled up to Bristol Old Vic to see Emma Rice’s latest show Wise Children, from Angela Carter’s book of the same title. Rice’s new company is also going to bear this name, and this is the opening show.

Arriving early, I had time to enjoy the changes to the Old Vic itself – wonderful. It has expanded enormously, but without losing the charm of the old theatre with its Georgian boxes and intimate feel. You sit in the bar or have a meal as if sitting in an old street of Bristol looking up at the outside walls of the theatre. ‘Streets’ appear to lead here and there – but it is all undercover, glassed in so cleverly that you really feel you are outside. In this way, the architects have cleverly preserved the outside walls of Britain’s oldest theatre building.

Once inside, I found my seat in the stalls – not quite as far to the front as I normally like, especially with productions done by Kneehigh or by Rice – well, actually always! My friends laugh at my need to be as near to being on the performing space as I can possibly be! And some don’t like it, feeling they want to keep at one remove. But me, I want to be immersed. And that is what this production does. Not Kneehigh, but in many ways it could have been. The stamp Emma Rice made on Kneehigh and that Kneehigh made on Emma Rice is clear. 

There is music: Stu Barker and Ian Ross, both longtime musical directors for Kneehigh. Have they moved over to this new company, or is there always going to be crossover between Kneehigh and Wise Children? It’ll be interesting to see. The people who work with Kneehigh have always retained a loyalty for it, so I suspect there will always be a working relationship between the two companies.

There are names that have worked with Rice either at Kneehigh or at the Globe, notably Etta Murfitt, both an actor and a choreographer for many shows, plus almost all the actors. Rice is a director who pulls people in to want to work with her. All these actors are multi-skilled: dancers, singers, often with circus or acrobatic skills. Many play instruments. Many are skilled at working with puppetry. All of them have an energy and joyousness that carries an audience with them. This is enhanced, as always, by a constant acknowledgement of the presence of the spectators, a kind of humorous collusion, so that we, the audience, feel a part of the show. And that is a very special quality.

All of these things are features of Kneehigh too, but why not? There must surely be room for more than one theatre group offering a similar style of show.

Both companies, on this showing, use theatre to expose a fairytale world with all its tangled and complex messages. This is the kind of world that Artaud talks about when he writes of accessing the audience’s ‘double.’ He cites the shared mythology and archetypes that haunt humanity everywhere, which people their dreams and trouble their subconscious. This shared understanding of the world beneath the logical world of everyday life, can be awoken, in Artaudian terms, through shock tactics, through bypassing the barriers set up by our own intellect. But it can also be accessed by the craziness of the world of mythology and fairytales itself. The sheer exuberance of this production [and of many Kneehigh productions too] breaks through our stuffy attitudes and our many barriers of logic and resistance, so that we are swept into the same magical world of the show, where there are different rules, where dark and frightening things happen, but where, also, there is a kind of rightness offered, a conclusion that is satisfying.

Emma Rice has tackled Angela Carter before. I saw her Nights at the Circus in Plymouth many years ago. Carter, who sadly died too young, often wrote about the magic that lies behind reality and all her work is coloured by her love of fairytales. The same passion has formed much of the work done by Rice too. She too loves to expose the darkness seaming through these tales and the human truths that are exposed by them.

As always with a production of this kind, I left the theatre feeling high on the confection that it offers us. I would happily see it again, knowing that it will be subtly different each time, as any show that uses the audience to bounce off will be. I wondered what my following night’s theatre adventure would prove to be like.

Having travelled up from the far West of Cornwall to Bristol, I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to see something else in the vicinity. Nothing on offer at the Tobacco Factory leapt out at me this time, so I went to the only other show on at a reasonable distance, Noel Coward’s A Song at Twilight at Bath’s Theatre Royal.

Oh dear!

Normally a show of this kind would not attract me, but at least this was a play I had not seen and, having done a little research, I felt it would be interesting – it was Coward’s last full-length play [part of Suite in Three Keys 1965 in which it is the only full-length offering alongside two one-Acters.] More interestingly it is about a homosexual who has hidden himself behind the shield of marriage – more still, having pushed away his one true love, he has locked himself into a state of lovelessness where he allows no one close – everyone, including his wife are kept distant by his barbed tongue; it is therefore clearly a kind of self-confession, although Coward’s own ‘marriage’ was to the theatre. Still, as a homosexual at a time when it was still illegal, Coward’s own sexual preferences would have been kept under wraps. By 1965, when the play was written and Coward himself was growing old [he died in 1973], the legality of homosexuality was being ardently debated in Parliament and it was only a couple of years later when the ban on it was lifted. This must have had something to do with the writing of this play.

So I was interested enough to decide to go and watch it, despite the fact that Simon Callow was to be the lead role. Though I do not personally like Callow as an actor [to me he appears always to be playing himself, with a range of precisely annunciated words broken up with little hisses between his teeth and clicks of the tongue which I personally find gets in the way of any potential characterisation] I did think that it would at least be professional and, since Callow is himself homosexual, might show an honesty in the performance that could be engaging.

BUT …. Simon Callow didn’t know his words. All through the first scene, he filled gaps with explosive sounds and stutters but his poor partner in the scene [Jessica Turner playing his wife] had little to work with. Result … gaps … flagging pace … embarrassment …

Opening night nerves [it was the first performance]? That doesn’t justify the price of the ticket – considerably more than for the Old Vic. And from such a professional?

Things got better when the ‘flame from the past’, with her series of bombshells which force Callow’s character to face up to the lies and concealments of his life, entered – Jane Asher. At least the words appeared sound from now on. But Asher, also an actress of experience, was lacklustre – going through the motions and trying to engage with Callow who appeared locked into his own little characterisation, without truly engaging with her.

Is this the real reason why Callow does so many one-man shows? No one will act with him? Or he is locked so much into his own ego and outer persona that he is impossible to act with? He gave his co-actors so little – in this production, that is what I felt, a lack of engagement from Callow with anyone other than himself.

And this was very disappointing. The pace was too even, lacking variety. No one appeared to be on top of their characters. Jessica Turner was the best, but she had little help from the others.

It made me angry. The contrast between this dreary production and the vibrancy of Wise Children on the previous night. The difference in the audiences too – who didn’t appear too concerned by the Coward play, but certainly didn’t exit the theatre animated and sparky as those leaving Wise Children had done. Then it struck me, used as I am to the many wonderful productions I have seen over the last years [and no, they haven’t all been Kneehigh! But have included the wonderful Hedda with Ruth Wilson, the extraordinary View from the Bridge with Mark Strong and Nicola Walker, and many revelatory Shakespeare’s] – it occurred to me that for the first time in many years I had seen in the professional theatre – shame on them – an example of Peter Brook’s Deadly Theatre.