‘It certainly won’t be boring,’ says Emma Rice as she turns Blue Beard into a wonder tale celebrating women at Theatre Royal

Wise Children artistic director Emma Rice. Picture: Carmel King

WISE Children director Emma Rice has an admission to make ahead of Blue Beard’s arrival at York Theatre Royal on Tuesday.

“I love fairy tales, but I’ve actually never liked the story of Blue Beard,” she says. “Not wanting to add to the number of dead women scattered throughout our literature and media, I have always avoided the gruesome tale.

“However, haunted by the regular and painful chime of murdered woman in the news, I woke one morning with the story knocking powerfully at my dreams. I pulled my copy from the shelves and, with some trepidation, unlocked the door of Blue Beard’s castle.”

Emma thought Blue Beard was a story of controlling women, telling them off for asking questions and being curious. “But something changed a couple of years ago, and the story started to nag at me,” she says.

“What I found hidden in those pages was a story not about dead women but about vibrant, flawed, joyful living ones. Here was a story about female friendship, intellect and survival. It’s also a story in which, by working together, the aggressor is vanquished.

“And this is precisely why I want to tell Blue Beard now. In my middle years I want to join forces with those I love and take down the ones who threaten us. I, for one, have had enough, and for Zara Aleena, Jack Taylor, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Daniel Whitworth, Sarah Everard and the thousands and thousands of others who have died at the hands of violent men – Blue Beard is my defiant and hopeful answer.”

Emma had become more and more haunted by “the regular chime of women being attacked, murdered and abused”. “Sarah Everard’s shocking murder and the ensuing chaos of her vigil captured the public’s imagination,” she says. “However, for me, it was the murder of Zara Aleena 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 victim’s home. I wanted to use my craft, my platform, and my experience to make a small difference.”

“I want the production to seduce with high comedy, tragedy, magic, romance and just a sprinkle of spine-tingling horror,” says director Emma Rice. Picture: Steve Tanner

Emma realised she wanted to tell this story, not to understand or excuse Blue Beard, but to breathe life into the women he tried to control. “I wanted to express not just the rage, grief 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,” she says.

“So, my version of Blue Beard is very definitely about the women, about celebrating women and about saying enough is enough! We will not be afraid anymore.”

Adapted for the stage by Emma, Blue Beard carries the weight and power of a classic drama, she contends. “It’s almost Shakespearean and most definitely Greek in structure; I hope audiences will feel entertained, moved and transported.

“We found the subject matter very powerful in rehearsals and there have been lots of laughter and tears. I hope audiences will share the joy, the darkness, the fury and the hope. It certainly won’t be boring!”

Blue Beard, Emma’s fifth show for Wise Children, finds her returning to her roots at Cornwall’s now disbanded Kneehigh Theatre, where she specialised in folk tales before her brief encounter as the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe.

“After the shared trauma of lockdown and, in its wake, the long haul of getting back into the world, 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,” she says.

“Magical and universal, they are ripe for re-interpretation and reinvention. They challenge and delight in equal measure and allow me to explore complex and important themes without having to be literal or naturalistic. They lend themselves to music and movement and I love them! With Blue Beard, I am back in my theatrical element.”

Given the themes of male violence and control, can York audiences expect a challenging evening? “Well, yes – in some way,” says Emma. “Our production does not shy away from violence and its devasting effect, but it is also hopeful and empowering.

Wise Children in a scene from Emma Rice’s Blue Beard, heading to York Theatre Royal from Tuesday. Picture: Steve Tanner

“I don’t think audiences will come away thinking everything’s awful and it’s never going to change. Instead, I want people to look these issues squarely in the eye and think: ‘right, that’s it. The world does not 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 storytelling techniques to give the subject layers and nuance. This means 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 it is 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, Emma’s show is not all darkness by any means. Blue Beard pulses with stylish theatricality, gritty reality and genuine emotion,” she says. There’s also comedy. Katy Owen, an actor I’ve worked with for many years, is one of the most brilliant comic actors working today, and she plays a nun at the Convent of the Fearful, F****d 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 just a sprinkle of spine-tingling horror. It’s a blockbusting rollercoaster!”

As a practitioner of ‘devised theatre’, Emma likes to work closely with a composer throughout the rehearsal process, shaping, refining and reworking the music as the production develops.

“Music is shot through this magical tale,” she says. “I’m working with my longtime friend and collaborator Stu Barker, who I also worked with on Brief Encounter, Tristan & Yseult, and many, many more.

“Stu is a composing genius, who knows just when a song, a sting or an underscore is needed. I’m particularly loving working on this show because almost all my actors are also musicians. This means the music comes straight out of the heart of the show: it’s all performed live by this incredibly talented ensemble of actor-musicians.

“They jump seamlessly between playing and acting, and I marvel at their talent. The songs are dynamite, and I go to sleep with them running through my head and wake up singing them.”

“This is certainly the most ambitious piece of writing I have ever done,” says Emma Rice of her script for Blue Beard. Picture: Steve Tanner

In Emma’s account of the fairytale, Blue Beard is a magician, requiring actor Tristan Sturrock, Emma’s long-term collaborator, to work 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,” she says.

“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 which is the perfect match for Blue Beard.”

After adapting three novels, Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for Wise Children productions, Emma has created her own version of Blue Beard.

“The piece has taken shape slowly, as I’ve been working on this project for over two years, and it has been a joyful and surprising path to this place,” she says. “But it’s certainly no less complicated than adapting, because, although I could have chosen to write about anything, I seem to have chosen something quite complex!

“We have three narratives running through the piece: the magical world of Blue Beard, a modern world where we hear the story of the Lost Brother and Sister, and then there’s a framing narrative, set in the extraordinary world of the Convent of the Fearful, F****d and Furious.”

Workshops have allowed Emma to explore these three worlds with her actors and musicians. “The narrative threads intertwine to bring meaning and perspective to the Blue Beard legend. It’s a tricky structure but one that pays great dividends,” she says.

“I’ve relished taking charge of the material and this is certainly the most ambitious piece of writing I have ever done. It feels great to be pushing myself artistically – and yet still allowing myself to be just a little bit silly.”

Blue Beard’s tour takes in Theatre Royal Bath, HOME Manchester, the Lyceum in Edinburgh, Birmingham Rep and Battersea Arts Centre, as well as York Theatre Royal. “I love touring!” says Emma.

“With Blue Beard, I am back in my theatrical element,” says writer-director Emma Rice of Wise Children’s premiere. Picture: Steve Tanner

“I look forward to the food and architecture in Bath, the cool shops in Manchester, the museums in York, the magnificent natural beauty of Edinburgh, the Bullring in Birmingham and the fabulous moody and smoke-damaged Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre.

“Four of our tour venues – Manchester, York, Edinburgh and Birmingham – are co-producers on the show, meaning not only have they helped to finance it, but, more importantly, they have brought all their skills and experiences to the creation of the show, helping us to make something more wonderful, and better resourced, than we could have done alone.

“It’s such a hard time for theatres, but these particular venues have all been superstars, backing us, believing in us, and making it possible for us to bring this show to their audiences.”

Emma has celebrated five years of Wise Children by opening a new venue, The Lucky Chance, in Frome, Somerset, renovating and transforming the early 20th century Methodist Chapel into the company’s creation space and base for their training programmes.

“It’s been wonderful. In the true sense of the word,” she says, after the move from Bristol. “I begin to realise that this has always been my dream: to create a home for the work and the people that make it. The Lucky Chance is a place to create, to party, to take shelter in and to return to.

“It gives Wise Children roots and a beautiful space to welcome our diverse community of friends, audiences, neighbours and students alike. I couldn’t be prouder or happier. It’s called The Lucky Chance because that is exactly what it is.”

Wise Children presents Blue Beard, York Theatre Royal, February 27 to March 9, except next Sunday and Monday; 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 7.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Wise Children’s Blue Beard: the back story

BLUE Beard the Magician makes hearts flutter and pupils dilate. With a wink, a stroke and a flick, things just seem to vanish. Cards, coins, scarves…and women. When someone tells you not to look, open the bloody door, advises Wise Children’s world premiere, adapted and directed by artistic director Emma Rice.

Emma brings her brand of theatrical wonder to this beguiling, disturbing tale with her signature sleight of hand to explore curiosity and consent, violence and vengeance, all through an intoxicating lens of music, wit and tender truth.

Artistic director Emma Rice outside Wise Children’s new venue, The Lucky Chance, in a former Methodist Chapel at Frome, Somerset. Picture: Carmel King