Emma Rice: The director with sky-high ambitions

Emma Rice's Kneehigh theatre company are bringing their radically innovative work to the West End, says Claire Allfree

What a glamourous life I lead," laughs Emma Rice, Kneehigh's artistic director, looking around a room in a rehearsal studio in south London that has all the charm of an inner-city classroom.

Rice joined Kneehigh, one of the most consistently playful and irreverent theatre companies in Britain, in 1994; last year it celebrated its 30th birthday. The company started out performing in a ramshackle barn on the Cornish coast: these days, it sells out Broadway and tours to Australia. It used to be a byword for slightly crazy fringe anarchists with something of the moon about them, bashing tambourines in fields and disused mines, but in recent years Kneehigh has been commissioned by the RSC and has played the National's Olivier stage. Their website still describes them as a local theatre company – but with their most recent commission a collaboration with the French soundtrack legend Michel Legrand, it's hard not to think of Kneehigh as a company on the verge of conquering the world.

In fact Kneehigh, who specialise in fusing music, circus and old-fashioned storytelling skills to create renegade adaptations of fairytales and revisionist versions of the classics, have perhaps become too big for Kneehigh. Their new West End show, a stage version of Jacques Demy's 1964 candy-coloured musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, isn't strictly a Kneehigh show at all. "I haven't used any Kneehigh core members in this piece because of the levels of musicality needed. Kneehigh won't be remotely upset to hear me say this, but we just don't have the skills."

Kneehigh's anarchic spirit is sure to be all over Rice's approach to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, about a soldier who goes off to war in Algeria leaving behind a girl who marries someone else. Together with Kneehigh's two previous film adaptations, their provocatively free version of Powell and Pressburger's classic 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death and the hugely popular Brief Encounter (which was performed in a cinema, and which cleverly spliced film footage with live performance), it also forms an unintended cinematic triptych.

Under Rice, Kneehigh has clocked up a mighty CV of adaptations and original work, upending classics such as Tristan and Yseult and The Bacchae. Nights at the Circus, a seedy, dreamy take on Angela Carter's novel hit the Lyric Hammersmith in 2006, while 2003's The Red Shoes, a landmark Kneehigh production directed by Rice and one clearly very close to her heart ("it came out of the break up of my marriage") ends a tour of the UK and Australia at London's BAC this month. Often presented with a strong female perspective, and always deeply personal for Rice, Kneehigh's shows are always defiantly populist in spirit and thrillingly rule-breaking in attitude.

This subversive streak hasn't always pleased the critics. A Matter of Life and Death, which opened at the National in 2007, received what Rice calls ruefully a critical "drubbing". The reviews, which mainly took issue with Rice's defiantly non-purist approach, led the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, to describe the show's mostly male detractors as "dead white men", an outburst that then led to a furious blogosphere debate about whether some critics remain too long in their jobs and whether gender informs critical response.

Adapting to the demands of bigger and more mainstream audiences while keeping hold of their Cornish folk roots has been, Rice admits, a problem. "There's always been talk that Kneehigh has got too big for Cornwall," she says. "Success has been a real challenge to us, particularly when you struggle for so many years on the fringe. There's a great simplicity about struggle. You know what you want and you are always trying to get it."

' The Umbrellas of Cherbourg', Gielgud Theatre, London W1 ( www.umbrellasofcherbourg.com) to 1 October; 'The Red Shoes', BAC, London SW11 ( www.bac.org.uk) to 9 April

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album