Kneehigh give the Don Juan legend a late 1970s feel, Emma Rice explains to Terry Grimley.


Meeting Emma Rice, artistic director of Kneehigh Theatre Company, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Tardis-like rehearsal complex in Stratford-upon-Avon, I can’t help wondering how it compares with what she’s used to.

Kneehigh, based in Cornwall, famously rehearses in a group of barns on a cliff-top. It sounds terribly romantic but you do wonder if it might not be a touch draughty at this time of year.

“Barns are designed to let the weather in and out, but we make sure they stay warm,” she says. “They are really in the middle of nowhere. It’s beautiful – there’s no mobile phone signal and no cafes, so a simple magic happens. We eat together and have to chop wood to heat the barns. You end up having a wonderful time.”

While so many of her theatre colleagues feel the pull of London, Rice insists that she feels more at home on the Celtic fringe.

“It’s a much more exciting place to be. I have no interest in being in the centre, it’s much better to be outside, tapping on the window.”

It certainly hasn’t prevented Kneehigh building a big reputation in the last few years for their vivid physical style of theatre. The RSC connection came about when they were invited to contribute a very individual take on Cymbeline to the Complete Works festival two years ago, while the National Theatre staged Rice’s adaptation of the classic Pressburger & Powell film A Matter of Life and Death on its biggest stage, the Olivier.

This year Kneehigh has been resident in London with its version of another classic British film, Brief Encounter – first staged at Birmingham Rep last year.

Now the show being rehearsed is Don John, a new version of the Don Juan legend with particular reference to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The West Midlands is going to see a lot of this Kneehigh/RSC co-production because, as well as its initial run in Stratford, it will tour to Birmingham Rep and Warwick Arts Centre in February.

What attracted Rice to the subject?

“I’m beginning to know, but I didn’t know for a long time. You get interested in stories on intuition, and it takes a little bit of hanging on in there to find out what lies at the heart of them.

“I just consider myself to be a storyteller. We’re all retelling these stories all the time. I’m very serious about intuition, so therefore I’m not interested in intellect, really. If you are not intuitive at the start of things it’s not going to be interesting and, at the end of the day it’s no good if it isn’t a good night out.

“The Don Juan/Casanova/Don Giovanni stories have been ticking away for years. It’s the first time I’ve ever done a piece with a male main protagonist but the one thing I always knew was it wasn’t going to have some swaggering character in the middle of it that women fawn over. It’s quite a dark story, and it’s about the women, his impact on women and the society around them. ”

In this particular production Rice has decided that society is going to be Britain in 1978, on the eve of the Winter of Discontent and the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

“I’ve set it in 1978 for lots of reasons. It was just before capitalism and Thatcher, which is what in many ways I think Don John stands for. The banks collapsed in our first week of rehearsals, and I thought that’s the end of that big arc of history that began in the 1970s.

“It’s my loss of innocence, really. I’m 41 now, so I was 11 at the time. I was still a child but I remember the blackouts.”

The production will feature some of Mozart’s music in modified form and also some of the pop music of the time, though Rice isn’t saying which because she wants it to be a surprise.

“The music of that time is brilliantly polar. There was punk which emerged in 1976, The Jam, and then you had some of the most fantastically sentimental things like Three Times a Lady. It was a time that could still embrace innocence – you could still dream.

“It’s a fantastic time of opposites. I looked into the Northern Soul scene that was happening at that time.

‘‘There was no pick-up motivation at a Northern Soul club, it was all about the music.

‘‘And of course it’s an interesting time for women.

‘‘The sexual revolution has happened, it’s pre-Aids, there’s this perfect hinterland of being sexually accessible before my generation discovered there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

As a self-declared feminist, what does Rice make of the Don John character?

“What’s interesting is that he doesn’t change. There’s usually a moment when people reveal themselves but he doesn’t do that.

“He’s greedy and careless and therefore we are fascinated by him, because most of us are bound by our cares and struggles, but this character doesn’t have them. I think there’s a personal tragedy in that for him.

“But actually I’m rather fond of him, because he’s not a liar.

‘‘With people like him there’s something that is just not there to have. What’s interesting is not really them, it’s what they bring out in us.

“There’s that old saying, ‘treat them mean and keep them keen’ – that says much more about the women than it does about the man. I think the tragedy is that there’s nothing there in the end. He creates this snowball of anger and resentment, but in the end he doesn’t care.

“But he is bloody sexy. There are very few things sexier than someone who doesn’t care – but that’s bad news.”

Despite the success of Kneehigh in the last few years, Rice’s career hasn’t been entirely without controversy.

A critical backlash against A Matter of Life and Death – some commentators seemed to take the view that a cinematic classic was somehow being desecrated by being put on stage – prompted a remarkable outburst from the National Theatre’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, in which he accused the critical establishment of being misogynist.

While Rice describes Hytner’s intervention as “a remarkable act of support and gallantry” she insists that she has never felt professionally vulnerable because of her gender. She adds the practical point that A Matter of Life and Death played to more than 90 per cent capacity at the National.

“Being a woman hasn’t ever stopped me doing anything. I don’t wake up in the morning and feel like a woman, I wake up and feel like me. I make the work I want to do, and I can do that because other women have made that possible. Note to self: must do a play about the suffragettes!”

Her plans include another film adaptation, of the 1960s French musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

“I’m hoping to work on a ballet as well. To push storytelling in that direction seems like a real challenge.

“The thing I love is the making of it, the process, the surprise, the temporariness of the live event. I love the fact it doesn’t exist afterwards. Whereas films, they hang around, don’t they?

“I love it, it feels like an old-fashioned thing, theatre. One of the things I love in life is when you’re on a ladder and you’re always looking at what the next step is going to be. It’s about living the moment.”

* Don John opens at The Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon, on Friday and runs in repertory with Romeo and Juliet until January 10 (Box office: 0844 800 1110).

It tours to eight venues in the New Year including Birmingham Repertory Theatre (February 17-21) and Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry (February 24-28).