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

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power