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27 Nov 2010

Emma Rice
Emma Rice
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The creator of Broadway's Brief Encounter returns to an earlier project, The Red Shoes, now having its U.S. premiere in Brooklyn.


Emma Rice, the visionary British director whose adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter stretches our expectation of theatrical form with the bold use of songs, contemporary references, stark imagery, dance, flying, puppets, projections and more, currently has two productions playing in New York City. For Britain's Kneehigh Theatre Company, Rice put her own spin on Hans Christian Andersen's dark 19th-century tale of punishment, "The Red Shoes," back in 2002. Rice's The Red Shoes, revived in honor of Kneehigh's 30th anniversary, is finally getting its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, now to Dec. 12. Brief Encounter played a limited run at St. Ann's in December 2009, and, by fall 2010, the show was reconstituted for Broadway's Studio 54, where it continues to Jan. 2, 2011. A few weeks before The Red Shoes arrived in Brooklyn, we phoned Rice (currently prepping the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for London's West End) and spoke to her about the legend of the girl who was punished for wanting vivid footwear.

I love that you honor the domestic drama of Brief Encounter, that there is a core story there, but what you do with it is so cracklingly alive. So theatrical.
Emma Rice: Oh, thank you so much. That's wonderful.

The Red Shoes predates Brief Encounter
ER: It does! It's [from] ten years [ago]. It's a decade earlier. I think it's interesting because I think the themes [of the two shows] are very, very similar, but the world is so different. It's a very bold piece, very physical, quite austere in its own way, so in some ways, there's worlds between Brief Encounter and Red Shoes, and in other ways, it's really about the same thing. It's about personal freedom and choice and passion.

I'm at a disadvantage because I haven't seen the production yet. Can you give me a sense of it? Is Hans Christian Andersen the jumping-off point?
ER: It is, yes. It's certainly the folk story rather than the [famous 1948] film. It's definitely using the Hans Christian Andersen story, but I also went back further and found some earlier oral tellings of the story, and then I've changed it. I've made it my own. I got very cross on behalf of my heroine, because in all the versions of this story, she's punished! In many, including Hans Christian Andersen, she dies, and in others, she's put into a life of servitude, and I thought, "There's no way that I'm going to do that to my heroine." So this is absolutely a re-telling.

I read somewhere that you really didn't know The Red Shoes. You knew the title. Is that right?
ER: Yes. [Laughs.] It's completely true! I sort of look back on it with horror, really, at the lack of preparation. I just announced that I was to do The Red Shoes and then thought, "What have I done?" And it was only then that I went and — well, first of all, watched the film, and I thought, "Well, this is a disaster," because the film is very operatic. It's got quite a strange narrative, there's lots of orchestral numbers, and I thought, "Well, this is nothing to do with me and is sort of unstageable," particularly as Kneehigh was a very small company at the time. So it was then I went on and read the folk tale and was very profoundly moved, but also shaken, really, at how relevant the story was. So I really felt that it came and found me. I feel quite spiritual about it.

What is retained in terms of the Hans Christian Andersen story that some people know? That Andersen story is all about vanity, isn't it?
ER: Oh, God, no. [Laughs.] I think it's all about identity. I think that [the story of] "The Red Shoes" [has] been interpreted as [being about] vanity and desire for something that's maybe not appropriate, but I personally believe that "The Red Shoes" [is] absolutely about who she is, and it's really taken away from her. In one of the earliest tellings, which is what I was very inspired by, the first thing that happens is her mother dies and she's orphaned, and she makes herself a pair of shoes out of red leaves and berries, and they're very beautiful and they're very natural. And it's when she [is] adopted by the old lady that…these shoes [are taken] from her, and really, it's from that point that she becomes obsessed with replacing those red shoes. So they become a metaphor for trying to replace what's been taken away from you, whether it's the mother that's died or indeed these natural, homemade shoes that she's created. So I think it's nothing to do with vanity. I think it might be interpreted as vanity, but it's about, really, the quest for who you are.

Does your story involve shoes of leaves and berries?
ER: The earliest version I found has these shoes made of leaves and berries. My shoes are indeed found, but they're not leaves and berries, so I've, again, sort of made it my own.


Patrycja Kujawska in The Red Shoes
photo by by Pavel Antonov

And you commissioned a poem to inspire the piece…
ER: Yes, what happened was I started to [work on] what I wanted the story to be — literally what happens, who we meet, and certainly what I feel a measure of the story is. And then I worked with a poet called Anna Maria Murphy and commissioned a collection of poems inspired by those characters and those events — not a script. When you see the show, that gives it quite a fairy-tale-like quality. There's no naturalism here; nobody's at a kitchen sink in this show. But it's very much a storytelling that's based on the harsh meanings of the story. The way the poetry works — I think it gives it a great gravitas to have the poetry there, but it also gives it a childlike sense of telling a story.

Is it about individualism?
ER: Yes, it is, although when you say that word, I think, "Oh, gosh, is it?" I think it's really about balancing what your own needs as an individual are against the requirements of society and people that you come into contact with, and what I love about the story is there's no easy answers. I'm certainly not saying, "We must all be individuals and do what we like," but neither am I saying, "You must conform to what's expected of you." What I think the story examines is the tension between those two things, and I think certainly, for women and girls, that's huge — absolutely huge — and that's where the links to Brief Encounter come into sharp relief. Just what happens as a woman when you think, "I don't want children" or "I wish I hadn't had children" or "I could be something different." It's a very, very tough choice, and I think that The Red Shoes, as a metaphor, is really all about the cost of those choices, as well, which is, again, why I think the story is so resonant — these choices are not simple ones, not at all, and almost whichever way our girl goes, she has to pay a price for it.


Mike Shepherd, Giles King and Robert Luckay in The Red Shoes
photo by Pavel Antonov


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