Review - Emma Rice returns with Wise Children at the Old Vic
The dazzling theatre magician that is Emma Rice has just conjured the latest chapter, in every sense, of her compelling and revolutionary adventures in theatreland. From Kneehigh, the touring company based in Cornwall which propelled her to the National, the West End and Broadway, to her sadly abbreviated tenure at the helm of Shakespeare's Globe, she is a bold and brilliant theatremaker, who brings a highly distinctive artistic signature and sensitivity to her work.
It is always alive with humanity - but also buzzes with innate theatricality. And it is born of the naked simplicity and directness of its storytelling, full of playfulness, a lot of songs, wit and also sadness.
She launched her own company in the wake of her early departure from the Globe, and writes in a programme note: ‘When my professional life was turned upside down in 2015 and nothing seemed certain or sane, I had one raft of clarity to cling to. As if I had been given wishes in a wonder tale, I knew three things for sure. One: I knew that I needed to start my own company and be the mistress of my own destiny. Two: I knew that Angela Carter’s Wise Children would be my first show; and three: I knew that the company would bear the same name. If you could draw a line between those dark chaotic days at The Globe and the opening night at The Old Vic, the line would be Wise Children.’
The sense of a kind of artistic destiny - and inevitability - is solidified in this robustly theatrical tale, part of which is set inside this very theatre, as we follow the story of twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, as they celebrate their 75th birthday - which is also the date that Shakespeare's birthday is marked, too.
And in an interview in The Observer in July, Rice remembers her last day at the Globe was on Shakespeare's birthday, 23rd April 2018: “The heavens opened as I left and something washed away at that moment. I had such a sense of the narrative of my life…”, she told the paper.
That same sense of narrative coincidence and wonder informs this wild, unpredictable play. She has said of Angela Carter's last novel on which it is based, "It is a love letter to theatre and one I recognise with a deep personal knowledge."
That personal investment and the theatrical family she has built around her is beautifully apparent in the rich work of a stunning ensemble company, that includes regular Rice collaborators like Mike Shepherd (artistic director of Kneehigh), Gareth Snook (who last appeared in her magnificent production of Romantics Anonymous at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) and Etta Murfitt, who has regularly worked with Rice as a choreographer and here stars as Nora.
It is only playing a limited season at the Old Vic to 10th November, but will tour afterwards - and like many of Rice's previous productions, is likely to become part of a repertoire of shows she returns to again and again. As will I, when it is done again.
Wise Children tickets are available now.