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Emma Rice's Blue Beard journey

Emma Rice outside Wise Children's new home, The Lucky Chance
Emma Rice outside Wise Children's new home, The Lucky Chance

As director Emma Rice’s latest production Blue Beard embarks on a UK tour (coming to HOME Manchester, February 13-24; York Theatre Royal, February 27-March 9), we wondered why this particular story - it’s not exactly one most of us are familiar with.

“I’ve actually never liked the story of Blue Beard,” admits Rice. “I love fairy tales, but this is one I’ve always avoided. I thought it was just about controlling women. But something changed a couple of years ago, and the story started to nag at me.

“I’ve become more and more haunted by stories of women being attacked, abused and murdered. Sarah Everard’s shocking murder, for example captured the public’s imagination. But for me it was the murder of Zara Aleena [murdered by a serial offender as she walked home from an East London bar in 2022] that really brought home my anger and made me think about adapting Blue Beard. She was just walking home. A week later her family, friends and people she would never know, met at the spot where she was killed and walked her memory home. This was the moment that I knew I wanted to walk Blue Beard’s victims home. 

“I realised that I wanted to tell this story to breathe life into the women he tried to control. I wanted to express not just the rage and heartbreak so

many of us feel at lives cut short, but also to celebrate brilliant living women in all their wild and surprising glory. My version of Blue Beard is very definitely about the women and about saying enough is enough – we won’t be afraid any more.

“Blue Beard has the weight of a classic drama - almost Shakespearian, I hope audiences will feel entertained, moved and transported. We have found

the subject matter very powerful in rehearsals. I hope audiences will share the joy, the darkness, the fury and the hope. It certainly won’t be boring!”

Blue Beard is the fifth show Emma has created for her company Wise Children, founded in 2018 after her departure from Shakespeare’s Globe. Before that, Emma ran the much-loved, now closed, Kneehigh Theatre company. Many of Emma’s most successful works for Kneehigh were based on folk tales like Blue Beard.

“After the shared trauma of lockdown and the long haul of getting back to normal, it felt like the right time to go back to my roots. Wonder tales (as I like to call them) are an enduring source of inspiration for me. They are ripe for reinterpretation and reinvention. They allow me to explore complex and important themes without having to be literal or naturalistic, and lend themselves to music and movement - and I love them!”

Music is key to Emma’s shows. She always works closely with a composer, present throughout the rehearsal process to shape and refine the music as the production develops.

“Music is shot through the tale. I’m working with my long-time collaborator Stu Barker – who I also worked with on Brief Encounter, Tristan and Yseult and more. Stu is a composing genius who knows just when a song is needed. I’m particularly loving working on this show, because almost all my actors are also musicians. The music comes straight out of the heart of the show: all performed live by this incredibly talented ensemble. The songs are dynamite, and I go to sleep with them running through my head, and wake up singing them.”

In Rice’s version, Blue Beard is a magician, and we see part of his magic show onstage. Actor Tristan Sturrock therefore had to learn the business of being a stage magician.

“Tristan worked with several magicians in preparation for the show. He can now make coins vanish and cards appear, cut ladies in half and throw knives! It has been brilliant fun and creates fantastic, old school entertainment. I decided to make my Blue Beard a magician because it felt like a funny and surprising way to explore themes of lies, control and violence. The glamour of the magician’s assistant, mixed with the casual misogyny of these enduring acts, creates a heady cocktail that is a perfect match for Blue Beard.”

With themes of male violence and control, the audience expect a challenging evening at times: “In some ways,” says Rice. “We don’t shy away from violence and its devasting effect, but it’s also hopeful and empowering. I don’t think audiences will come away thinking everything’s awful and it’s never going to change. I want people to look these issues squarely in the eye and think: right, that’s it. The world doesn’t have to be like this, and I feel inspired to do something about it.

“It’s also worth saying that I’m not a naturalistic director. We use lots of different story-telling techniques to give the subject layers and nuance. A violent act could feature on stage as a dance or a song; it won’t be graphic and unpleasant. Sometimes violence is suggested, sometimes shown in a metaphorical way and, at the end, we have a huge, bloody real life struggle!”

Although the underlying themes are urgent and dark, the show pulses with stylish theatricality, gritty reality, and genuine emotion. There’s also comedy. 

“Katy Owen, who I’ve worked with for many years, is a brilliant comic actor who plays a nun at the Convent of the Fearful, Fucked and Furious – so you can imagine where that goes! Using music, dance, and storytelling, I want the production to seduce with high comedy, tragedy, magic, romance  – and a sprinkle of spine-tingling horror. It’s a blockbusting rollercoaster!”

This is the first original work from Emma in some years, most of her previous works having been adaptations – works such as Wuthering Heights, Malory Towers and Angela Carter’s Wise Children, which gave the company its name. 

“We have three narratives running through this piece: the magical world of Blue Beard, a modern world where we hear the story of a lost brother and sister, and then a framing narrative, set in the extraordinary world of the convent.

“We have done several workshops for the show, which have allowed us to explore these three worlds. The narrative threads intertwine to bring meaning and perspective to the legend. It is a tricky structure, but I’ve relished taking charge of the material and this is certainly the most ambitious piece of writing I’ve ever done.”

Emma recently celebrated five years since the launch of Wise Children by opening a new venue, The Lucky Chance in Somerset. Originally a Methodist chapel, the company have renovated and transformed it as base for creative work and training programmes.

“I realised that this had always been my dream: to create a home for the work and the people that make it. It gives Wise Children roots and a beautiful

space to welcome friends, audiences, neighbours and students alike. It’s so important to have a home, and to grow a supportive community around that home. I want the work to be seen across the globe, but I know I need to look after my roots. If they are strong and healthy, everything else will flourish.”


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