Visitorsto the 10thanniversary edition of Latitude Festival willbe the first to catch acclaimed theatre company Kneehigh’s new show,946. Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel, The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, the story gives an insight into a mostlyforgotten true story from the Second World War. Director and co-adaptor Emma Rice – who is soon to take up her new rôle as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe – spoke to Paul Couch about 946 and Kneehigh’s debut at the Suffolk festival.
This is the first visit by Kneehigh to Latitude – why now?
It’s really because it’s the first time it’s been possible for us. It’s a fantastic festival and something we’ve wanted to do for some time, and this year the dates just fell perfectly. The summer is our busiest time so it’s often difficult to make festivals work but this couldn’t have worked better this year.
946 is based on a little-known event in the preparations for D-Day – what drew you to the story?
My mum is the simple answer to that! I have three nieces and their Granny was reading them a story and she said “Emma you have to read this book!”. Obviously I don’t have much reason to read children’s books but it’s the most wonderful story. It somehow manages to encapsulate human drama across the generations. It’s about race, it’s about war, it’s about love and it’s so surprising as well. I thought it would make the most wonderful show for everybody. It’s not a children’s show it’s a family show, it really is one of those shows that you bring everyone to.
This is the first time Michael Morpurgo has co-adapted one of his own books for the stage – what’s it been like working with him?
He’s a complete dream; he’s so humble and so brilliant. He’s such a poet but with great ease and humility. He’s been in this morning and with his poetry and his amazing sense of story and my theatricality we’ve really been batting it between the two of us until it blurs in the middle into something hopefully wonderful.
A lot of directors don’t like having the writer in the rehearsal room, what’s your view?
It depends on the writer and it depends on the show. Michael doesn’t wish to be in all the time and I think he understands that actors will always bring life to language, so the scripts are evolving with improvisation and they’re what brings the extraordinary to a piece of work. Some writers don’t like to work like that but Michael is very at ease with itand my background is very much with improvisation.
The anniversaries of both First and Second World Wars have heightened interest in wartime stories – how important is it to capture these forgotten tales?
I’ve asked myself that very question, especially given there is so much warfare going on now and on a bigger level I don’t know if we should be doing stories on wars that are closer and happening now. The thing about war is it doesn’t matter which war, they teach us about conflict and the cost of conflict so there’s a resonance that bursts through this to now. Certainly when you look at the racism that occurred in warfare, thousands and thousands of black soldiers fought, both west Indian Soldiers but also black GIs from America and you hardly see a picture of them and it’s like they are erased from history. So I think there is so much to learn but this show is making my mind wander to all the conflicts and it’s very sobering.
So it’sabout objective storytelling rather than glorification of the conflict?
Absolutely and stories are a way understanding the small. I often think these things are so enormous they are hard to comprehend so we are boiling it right down to a little girl. There’s a beautiful theme of love. There’s a little girl whose Dad is away at war and she’s really unsentimental and loves her cats with a great passion and then she loves a young soldier she meets with a great passion but of course it is all about her dad as well when he comes back. It is that coming of age and how we project our emotions but by boiling the second world war down to this girl, her cats and this black soldier she meets you suddenly get a lens into the war that is so personal and true.
It sounds quite filmic in its expanse – do you think it would make a good film?
Simply yes! I think it’s a genius story that would be great on film.
How important is it for festivals such as Latitude to include theatre in their line up?
I’m a great believer in there being a broad church and each festival defining its own identity. What is great about Latitude is that it has become the festival of choice for theatregoers but I don’t think that necessarily means other festivals should do it. Whatever you do you have to do it well and Latitude does theatre well. As a theatre company I’m very impressed with the set up and the organisation and we’re feeling very cared for. In the old days of Kneehigh we used to get booked into street theatre festivals in the Netherlands and it was dreadful as nobody wanted to sit through a substantial piece of theatre! You need to make sure you decide on your audience and are looking after the work.
How do festival audiences differ from those who attend traditional theatre spaces?
I don’t think I’ve done enough to know! Though Kneehigh work outdoors, so it is similar. Kneehigh have always thought that in 90% of theatre events you know what is going to happen, where you’re going to go, what the building is like, what seat you’re going to sit in, what drink you’re going to have in the interval and what time you’ll get home. I do think there’s a great appetite for something different and a festival offers that. This is going to be in a tent, there’s much more informality, which goes back to Kneehigh’s roots of welcoming people in and saying this is an event for everybody, not just people with a G&T in their hands
Kneehigh is renowned for its inventive style – does that suit a festival atmosphere?
I think so – in the end our work is described as many things but we have no interest in anything but entertaining and telling a story to our audience which makes it accessible. It is always going to be easy to understand and not have long dull passages in it so that suits any audience.
Shingle Street, just down the road from latitude on the Suffolk Coast, has its own mysterious D-Day myth – with rumours of a thwarted German invasion. Do you think the local connection will resonate?
Quite possibly – that is the thing about the second world war, there are still people living that served or fought in the war but most of us have grandparents that did so the thread isn’t broken and the stories aren’t broken. Its something I’ve been drawn to throughout my career, stories that you can reach to through history and touch. I flounder a bit if you start talking about Lord Of The Rings or places that don’t exist but my grandparents fought in the war and my parents grew up in it so I feel a real connection with it and I’m sure locals will definitely feel their own connection.
946 contains puppetry – there seems to be an emergence in mainstream theatre now – why are we returning to that art form?
I guess there’s fashion and appetite but there’s also the skill now through productions like War Horse. We’ve always done puppetry but now its hit the mainstream and actors are being trained on the job but also becoming specialists. I think it’s just a growing part of the industry, it’s an amazing beautiful thing that’s all about the imagination, which you can’t do on film. It’s something I’m passionate about – a film can only film what is, in theatre you can suggest what might be and that’s where a puppet becomes magic.
You are heading off to The Globe next year – any chance of seeing The Globe at Latitude in the future?
Why not! I don’t see any reason why not so we should definitelytalk!
What acts are you looking forward to at Latitude?
Portishead! If I get to see them I’ll be very happy!
Kneehigh will be previewing 946 at The Latitude Festival