WE theatregoers in the west country first came across Emma Rice when she joined Kneehigh, where her productions and adaptations delighted, exasperated, excited, infuriated and inspired for almost 20 years. Then she was appointed director of Shakespeare’s Globe, and after two seasons and lots of controversy, removed herself from the post.
She set up Wise Children, based in Bristol, and then moved the company to Frome. Two years ago she was named as one of the 50 most influential theatre people in the arts in the UK. So it was with eager and curious anticipation that most of her fans in Bath headed for her new show, called Blue Beard – open the bloody door. Would it be a Kneehigh-style extravaganza of ideas and movement and sound … probably, as many multi-talented former Kneehigh alumni were in the cast. How would she approach this French 1697 Perrault story of a powerful man who seduces, marries and then murders wife after wife after wife?
By the interval, the audience, which included several teenage school groups, was restive, perplexed and wondering where it was going. By the end it was very different. Without giving too much away, there were torrents of audience tears to match the rain gods’ offerings outside.
Emma Rice is a very brave woman, and here her lastingly extraordinary actors fully understand her message and convey it to the audience with power and conviction.
We are only in early February and already an ITV semi-fictionalised drama has challenged and changed public perception of what is now known as the Post Office Scandal, forcing the Government into long overdue action.
Fuelled by the attitudes of the Tates, the Couzenses and the Sutcliffes of this world and their stories, which have brought Sarah Everard, Zara Aleena and far too many others to public notice, Emma and her Wise Children have taken a new look at an old, old story and created something that shook an audience to its roots. This clarion call is delivered with a chilling passion.
Rice’s “process” has always been the telling of stories, often explicitly by the characters in her plays. Here a lost boy stumbles into a strange convent, where a mother superior and her peculiar sisters might – or might not – offer shelter and succour. The mother superior, who sports a natty blue beard, trades shards of her own story with moments from the boy’s own past.
For the first half of the show the audience is treated to perfectly choreographed moments of chant and song, drunken revelry and sleazy seduction by a suave magician (also sporting a blue beard) whose specialities include throwing knives at his lovely assistant or sawing a (female) volunteer in half.
The pressure of inevitability is mounting.
Tristan Sturrock is the hirsute magician, with Patrycja Kujawska as the widowed mother of Lucky (Robyn Sinclair) and Trouble (Stephanie Hockley). Katy Owen (unforgettable as the Little Girl in Rice’s Globe Adolphus Tips and the Kneehigh finale, UBU Karaoke) is the violent and foul-mouthed leading nun, with Mirabelle Gremaud and Adam Mirsky as the lost brother and sister. Most of them were Kneehigh regulars. All of them know how to flip the soul of an audience in a nano-second.
Blue Beard is at Bath until Saturday 10th February before going on tour, to Manchester, York, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Battersea Arts Centre, between then and 18th May. It is an extraordinary experience, and one you may not want to miss.
Photographs by Stephan Tanner