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Emma Rice - Tristan and Yseult

The last time Emma Rice spoke to the Herald was in 2015, when she was overseeing a tour of her audacious staging of Daphne du Maurier's novel, Rebecca, with the Cornwall-based Kneehigh theatre company. While she was then artistic director of Kneehigh, with whom she had begun her theatre career as an actress, her appointment as incoming director of Shakespeare's Globe had recently been announced. As successor to Dominic Dromgoole, hopes for Rice's tenure, which she took up at the beginning of 2016, were high.

Less than two years on, and with a touring revival of Rice's Kneehigh production of mediaeval romance Tristan and Yseult arriving at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week, Rice has already announced that she will be leaving the Globe in spring 2018. That announcement came after Rice had only been in post for a few months, and followed concerns from the theatre's board regarding some of her artistic choices. This appeared to be in relation to her introduction of artificial lighting into a venue which has traded on its 'authenticity' in terms of staging Shakespeare unadorned by such new-fangled indulgences of electricity.

Presuming that Rice was hired on the strength of her back catalogue and that the board knew what they were getting regarding Rice's irreverent and expansive reimaginings of classic works, this seemed a curious decision. In April, Rice published an impassioned public letter to her still to be decided successor. Published on the Globe website, Rice's missive was both celebratory of the work she and her artistic team made at the theatre, and critical of a board she said failed to respect that work.

“It's really tough on some levels,” Rice says of her impending departure, “and it's very sad, because I love it at the Globe, and I love my team, but everything comes to an end. It's just happened a bit earlier than I would have wanted it to have done.”

Dashing between rehearsals for Tristan and Yseult with Kneehigh and a brand new production of Twelfth Night as part of Rice's Summer of Love season at the Globe, Rice sounds anything but sad. Revisiting a show she first did fourteen years ago, one suspects, is a very personal form of taking stock.

Originally derived from twelfth century Anglo-Norman literature inspired by Celtic legend, Tristan and Yseult is a romantic tragedy which Rice and Kneehigh have transformed into a theatrical spectacle which is clearly a labour of love.

“I just sort of melt, really,” says Rice of working on the show. “It's extraordinary going back to something that I first did in 2003, and looking at it again, it somehow seems stronger and more powerful than it was then. I don't know what it is, and if I could bottle it, I would. It was the final rehearsal of it on Saturday, and I was in floods of tears. There's something about the show that does that too you. I'm besotted with it.

“I hate the idea of recycling shows, because there's a danger that what was special about it becomes diluted, but because we've done it several times now, we have a pool of actors from each production who are in this one, so there are only two people in this company who haven't done it before, and all of that reinvigorates it somehow. It doesn't happen with all shows, but it feels like this one has matured as we've matured.”

Tristan and Yseult wasn't the first choice of play for Oxford born Rice to direct for the company she had first appeared onstage with in 1994.

“I'm ashamed to say it wasn't me who thought of doing it,” she says today. “I inherited it. The artistic director of the company at the time was going to do it. I'd been acting with the company, and it was around the time I was moving into directing, and they just said, Emma, you should do it.

By her own admission, for a director who would go on to stage playful versions of classic plays, as well as film inspired works such as The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, it wasn't the most obvious material for Rice to try and get her head round.

“I didn't understand all the mediaeval stuff,” she says. “I don't like Game of Thrones or anything like that, and I had to try and find a way into it. I remember railing one night that I didn't want to just tell the story of two attractive people getting together. I think it was around the time of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt getting off, and I didn't want it to be like that. Then I had this idea of telling the story through the unloved, and that gave it depth. We set it in the Club of the Unloved, which on the one hand makes it very funny, but it also gives it a certain sadness as well.”

The result is a wild and thoroughly modern theatrical tour de force which is about as far removed from TV sword and sorcery epics as one can imagine.

“There's not a dragon in it,” says Rice. “At its heart is a love triangle about a king who marries a queen, who then falls in love with a knight. It's like what might happen if Kate Middleton fell in love with Prince Harry or something like that.”

Having opened Twelfth Night at the Globe in tandem with Tristan and Yseult's current tour, Rice isn't exactly resting on her laurels. While she clearly has plans beyond next April, she remains uncharacteristically coy about committing to anything specific.

“I'm keeping quiet,” she says. “I don't really want to say just now, just in case things don't work out.”

Whatever Rice does next, one suspects it will be done with a similar sense of largesse and pop cultural savvy which has defined her work, both with Kneehigh and Shakespeare's Globe, and which is rooted in what used to be called alternative theatre. As one of the companies who took such a stream of work out of the margins and onto some of the UK's bigger stages, to some extent Kneehigh have perhaps irked the classical purists along the way. It is possibly for this reason that Kneehigh and Rice remain a perfect match.

From the outside, her revival of Tristan and Yseult following such tumultuous times at the Globe looks like the perfect vehicle for her as a means of coming home. While she is no longer artistic director of Kneehigh, neither did she ever fully leave the company.

“You can't really leave Kneehigh,” she says. “It's a very close company, and is part of my DNA. I made all the decisions about doing Tristan and Yseult again long before the drama at the Globe kicked off, so it's funny how it's worked out. Life has a brilliant way of reaping all sorts of rewards by accident.

Tristan & Yseult, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 30-June 3.
www.citz.co.uk

 
The Herald, May 23rd 2017

ends

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