Being Fearless About Coward

By Christopher Wallenberg
September 27, 2010

To illuminate the inner lives of the lovers of Noël Coward's Brief Encounter, director Emma Rice brings puppets, film projection, aerobatics and song and dance into the spotlight.



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David Lean's classic 1946 film "Brief Encounter," about a clandestine emotional love affair between two straitlaced, middle-class Brits, with spouses and kids at home, is the picture of lip-quivering emotional restraint — the kind of film where the character's feelings are so stifled they make the Queen of England look like Ethel Merman.

But when Kneehigh Theatre artistic director Emma Rice set out to adapt and direct a stage version of "Brief Encounter," based on Noël's Coward's original one-act play Still Life, she wanted to bring to life those passionate emotions simmering under the character's repressed demeanors — to show the fissures in their constrained visages and muted voices.

"I wanted to bring color into it, some passion into it," says Rice during a recent video chat from her home in Cornwall, England, where Kneehigh is based. "Certainly the film is so restrained and it's so unspoken, and just speaking personally, I want to see a little bit of the red. I loved breathing a bit of passion and color and sex into the show."

The idea, says Rice, is to show what's happening internally with these characters — Alec, a married doctor, and Laura, a housewife and mother of two — by allowing the audience glimpse the power of their fatally fraught emotions and unconsummated love affair. "I think that's part of the tragedy of the story: That they, for a moment, discover a new sense of themselves. And I think as an audience, we want to see a glimmer of that — not just guess that it's there. We want them to see what their lives could be."

Tristan Sturrock in Brief Encounter
photo by Joan Marcus

The result is a visually arresting show bursting with vibrant explosions of stage magic — delightful musical numbers, unexpected aerials, literal crashing waves of emotion, projected black-and-white film clips, characters who melt from the stage into the two dimensions of a movie screen, and hilariously anarchic stage gags (a pair of patrician ladies with dogs fashioned out of floor mops practically brings the house down).

The Kneehigh production of Brief Encounter, which played at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn last winter and then toured to several U.S. cities, now plays Broadway's Studio 54 as part of Roundabout Theatre Company's 2009-10 season.

Rice agrees that audiences sometimes get too mired in the world of theatrical naturalism, forgetting the power of inventive, imaginative stagecraft; indeed, theatre offers unique advantages and perspectives that a medium like film cannot.

"We see real life every day. We wake up to our partners every day and negotiate life with them," says Rice, who will also bring Kneehigh's staging of The Red Shoes to St. Ann's Warehouse this fall. "We don't need to see that on stage. I don't need to see that on stage. I live it. I want to see something that makes my mind stir and makes me feel something in a fresh way and see things with new eyes. I want things to surprise people, because we live with the ordinary all the time."

Since taking over as artistic director at Kneehigh, Rice says she's brought an emotional and personal connection to the work — and that she's challenged the company to match that, to push themselves into vulnerable territory.

Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland in Brief Encounter
photo by Joan Marcus

Indeed, Rice coyly suggests her own personal identification with Brief Encounter. "Ooh, I wonder if it was being married and being unfaithful?" she says. "I was married, and I fell in love [with someone else]. The ending of my story was a very different ending, because I'm of a different generation."

While divorce may have been more taboo in the early 20th century (the play is set in 1938), Rice believes "the dilemma and the seriousness of what to do in that situation remains exactly the same. It's absolutely true that in society we have more choices today. But the emotions involved in making those choices are absolutely unchanged and just as terrible and difficult."

The show's enchanting, luminously theatrical bells and whistles offer a striking (and deeply moving) contrast to the would-be lovers, who bottle up their feelings for one another, with only little bursts of their true desires breaking out from under the placid surfaces. And while there's plenty of winking visual irreverence in the show, Rice's production treats the central love story with absolutely conviction. That's true, too, of the two other couples in the show, whose stories are a bit more lighthearted, if no less fraught with emotion.

"Look how deeply we feel. There aren't many adults who haven't experienced those same feelings that these couples in the show experience," Rice says. "In many ways, it's essential to the human condition — those powerful feelings balanced with what's right, or what's kind, or what's possible, these things that we wrestle with all the time. But I still think you can have fun and delights. And I don't think that's subversive. I think that's what life is. It's very serious and very funny, all at the same time."