WISE CHILDREN AT THE ARTS THEATRE
‘Wise Children’is a dream destination for director Emma Rice. It is based on a runic book by Angela Carter, the accomplished dark story write of the 1970s, is also the name of her newly formed theatre company and her ‘Wise Children Club’ for encouraging young people into drama. . Wise Children has clearly caught the imagination of the lately embattled veteran director who has fought her way through and out of the top theatre job as Head of the Globe Theatre.
It’s no secret that Emma Rice and classical Shakespeare were ill suited. Her tenure at the Globe was an ill-fated trajectory ending after the theatre’s staunchly traditional committee objected to her use of theatre lights and other technology not used in Shakespearean England . Allusions to it appear several times in the programme for Wise Children. A veteran of stage productions, Emma Rice, was signed up to fill the shoes of the departing Mark Rylance – and she wowed audiences with razzmatazz shows (by Globe standards) that trod painfully on the toes of the Board of Directors there. Now free to pursue her own thing, the bitterness still rankles – and it does so amusingly throughout her first production for the new theatre company. Characters bob up with snippets of Shakespeare, re-configured for amusement – or even more irreverently : the finale of King Lear as Cordelia dies in his arms morphs disturbingly into a sex scene and the play within a play What you Will is a series of comic capers with their creator in ruff and hose, as director.
In this play there are no constraints on Emma Rice’s direction - or invention. Merry crowds of players, talented and athletic, fill the roles Angela Carter wrote. But it is director Emma who manipulates them into their theatrical personae. Twin girls Dora and Cora, are the abandoned offspring of a celebrated and egotistical actor, Melchior Hazard, brilliantly played by Paul Hunter (he doubles deftly as Gorgeous George the end-of-the-pier comedian. Bob Monk house’s old joke emerged ‘They laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian’ (pause) ‘they’re not laughing now’). Sam Archer makes a muscular benign younger brother to Melchior, and Mike Shepherd quietly convincing as the older man, with a dark secret. Stars of the show are without doubt the actors who play the girls at 17 years old. Omari Douglas and Melissa James provide sophisticated entertainment with their superb dancing and gorgeous long-legged youthfulness. That they are a man and a woman seems wholly irrelevant as they embody the intense sexuality, the recklessness and charm of young showgirls on the make.
This is a play of two halves. The expository first act has much story–telling from the 75 year old twins telling their life story. Faithful to Angela Carter’s novel it undoubtedly is, but theatrical it isn’t. A linear narrative soon palls. At times the twins are telling the story whilst the versatile cast is showing it and by the second act their commentary is almost redundant.
Wise Children as rendered by Emma Rice is part pantomime, part impresario’s vision. The music is good. It’s hard to imagine there isn’t a six-piece orchestra on stage but it’s only a threesome of massive range. Songs are excellent, yet
‘Lets face the music and dance” ‘Just the way you look tonight’ are all part of the parody of romanticism that is the thrust of the story. Sung by Gareth Snook as Dora the cynical tongue- in -cheek quality is more than apparent whilst ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ done by an Etta James look-alike was mournfully sardonic given the rapes, miscarriages, deaths and abuse the women of the play endure. In fact the sex on stage, entirely Brechtian in its detail extended to several disturbing scenes of explicit child abuse.
Angela Carter’s narrative is 70s feminism – made entertaining. It presents the family as a place of pain and abuse, no men emerge even vaguely reasonable and women pay the price over and over again.
In this bold version the pantomime influence stops short of taking over (fun though it was) and Emma Rice’s artistry with the aid of breathtakingly brilliant musicians actors and dancers, emerges.
Angela Carter would have been happy to cede the limelight to an admirer and impresario of such imagination. Not unlike her own.