Writer: Angela Carter
Adaptor and Director: Emma Rice
Of course, it’s highly unlikely that back in 2018 Emma Rice prophesied and prepared for our current situation in 2020, but as it turns out her production of Wise Children ( here filmed at York Theatre Royal) is really the ideal corona couch theatre. Addressing the audience directly throughout, there’s no need for us to try and suspend disbelief in our living rooms, and regardless of the screaming children in the next room, or the neighbour’s bizarrely loud HIIT workout, the chaotic circus-like performance keeps us glued to the screen all the while.
Based on Angela Carter’s final novel, this is the story of twins Nora and Dora. Beginning on their seventy-fifth birthday in a ramshackle caravan in Brixton, wearing matching dressing gowns, the scene hardly screams glamour and debauchery. But upon receiving a fancy party invitation from their estranged father, these old showgirls cast an eye over the chaos, glitz and romance of their younger selves.
Packed with unconventional familial love alongside seemingly contradictory showbiz salaciousness, the story doesn’t shy away from moments of trauma or poor choices. But the use of puppets, big musical numbers and dual and triple roles weaves them in to the whole; just as moments of giddy elation are tempered with bitter memories, so too are the more sobering occurrences balanced out by a sense of camaraderie, and comedy even. As Nora tells us, “comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.”
Most of the principal parts are divided between various members of the cast dependent on age, and when they’re not playing leads, they’re taking on bit parts or making up a choral community, so the stage is always jam-packed, creating panto-like pandemonium. Watching this online is particularly handy in this instance. Rice is clearly desperate to pack in as much of the novel as possible, often staging competing story-lines simultaneously. It’s easy to get lost and accidentally focus on the wrong part of the stage, missing an important narrative moment, but the camera is very helpful in guiding the audience’s eye, without cutting out the intentional mayhem.
What with everyone playing every kind of part, this is of course a cast of triple threats. In fact, not only does everyone have a solid high kick and booming voice, but the comic timing is spot on all round too. Naming one would lead to naming them all, but suffice it to say this is a spotless line-up.
Vicki Mortimer’s design is somehow both wonderfully over the top, whilst also giving the impression of something lovingly homemade. There is certainly no shortage of sequins and furs for instance and the revolving caravan is beautifully constructed, but seeing as the lead roles are being passed round from cast member to cast member, there’s also zero attempt at realism: wigs are obviously fake, nipple-tasseled fat suits serve for nudity, and a great fire is displayed by wafting red and orange hankies on sticks.
Rice and Carter raise questions on female desire, the conventional family set-up, and the confusing truth that relationships and memories can be both unthinkably awful and laden with feelings of comfort and love. It’s a perfect marriage of Carter’s picaresque carnival-like subversion, and Rice’s unmistakable gender-bending, high-concept production. All this piled high with lashings of physical comedy, bawdy one-liners and sequins for days makes for a magical, sordid spectacular.
Available here until 11 June 2020