On 3 October 2019, Emma Rice’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children hits the big screen via More2Screen. The multi-award-winning director has written movingly about why she turned to the novelist’s love letter to theatre when her own theatre career was upended…
Like many women of my generation, I couldn’t get enough of Angela Carter in my 20s. Her vivid, empowered and sensuous worlds sparked my imagination and I was happy to run anywhere with her, whether it be through tangled, humid forests or the sticky backstreets of London.
Carter seemed bound by nothing — convention, politeness, the tedium of reality or the expectations of society. She was disciplined, detailed, yet fearless — and there was a mythical truth to her work that shone bright, smelt strong and seemed to speak directly to me.
I recognised in her words a female wildness that was bubbling in my own heart and I dreamt of one day opening my own budding creative wings. I greedily read everything of hers that I could get my hands on and it wouldn’t take a genius to see how her influence trickles throughout the body of my work; the wonder tales, the sweaty theatricality and the sheer complexity of the women I choose to give voice to.
In 2006, I co-adapted and directed a stage version of Nights at the Circus for Kneehigh. Still a relatively newborn director, I hadn’t yet come up against my own fallibility. Looking back, I wonder if I was mad? This was an enormous and sprawling book with a huge winged woman at the centre of it. Surely, it was impossible?
Not at all! Carter and I fitted like a glove. I revelled in the man-hating brothel and didn’t pull my theatre punches when it came to the domestic abuse the book required me to explore. I remember creating a montage of women’s voices, piercing the soundwaves and propelling themselves out of the old century and into the new. I loved it and immediately started to hatch a plan for the next one.
The next one was always going to be Wise Children, but I needed to find the right time and place. I left it simmering away at the back of my dreams, waiting for the right moment to bring it to the boil.
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 reason I chose Wise Children as my company’s name is probably self-explanatory. These two small words are gigantically fitting. My work, ethos and aesthetic often teeters on the edge of the childlike. I love simple storytelling and encourage an innocence of play from my actors. As we create the work, we try to experience everything as if for the first time and engender in each other the ability to return fresh to the material, our process and each other. We are, in many ways, professional children, and proud as punch to be called so.
And we are wise because we have to be. Whilst holding on to joy and a capacity for wonder, we also need to be clever and canny. We all need to harness, feed and use our wild power wisely — and Carter was the high priestess of that. She provoked me to use the experiences that life had dealt to build my agency, my reach and my potential. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Wise Children!
Wise Children is a love letter to theatre and one I recognise with a deep personal knowledge. It seems old-fashioned now, but I really was like Nora and Dora Chance as a child. I had stars in my eyes and worked hard at my ballet — even with zero aptitude, genetic blessings or talent. I literally loved the smell of the greasepaint and was seriously romantic about a life in the theatre. How lucky I was to have found the love of my life so young!
No matter what life has thrown at me, theatre has been there to share the joy, the exhilaration, the frustration and despair. Theatre is my family of choice and Carter profoundly understood this. She saw the cost of a life on the road and also the joy. She saw the hours of graft that show business demands, the stinky digs, the frenzied love affairs and the euphoria of an audience and a company laughing and crying together; a temporary community that chooses to renew its vows to each other, night after night.
‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’ Carter chimes, like a bell through the pages of the book and the chapters of generations. I wish that I had written those words, because I feel them in my bones.
For the full version of this article, visit WiseChildren.co.uk.