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Guardian News & Media

Theatre director Emma Rice explains why – despite “caring enormously about reviews” – she will avoid reading what critics have to say about her new production.

On the top floor of the Old Vic, preparations for the stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children are in full swing.

Sunlight streams through the gigantic glass roof as its director breezes into the main rehearsal room above the auditorium – looking remarkably relaxed for someone whose new show is days from launching.

But, to be fair, Emma Rice has been through worse.

For her latest work, the 51-year-old has adapted and directed Carter’s 1991 book – which she has also named her new company after.

“It’s the perfect title isn’t it?” she tells BBC News.

“It’s got ‘Wise’ – wisdom, which feels really perfect at this point in my life, to be clever and mindful and use my power and my wisdom cleverly.

“And then ‘Children’, because that’s the eternal job of theatre makers, to keep an innocence, a freshness, an instinctive joy.”

Rice’s new company is launching two years after she announced she was leaving as the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe after just two seasons.

Her tenure was criticised after she admitted she wasn’t a huge Shakespeare fan – and members of the venue’s own board objected to Rice’s use of artificial sound and lighting at the venue.

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Rice has gone from artistic director of the Globe to launching Wise Children at the Old Vic

Launching her own company, we suggest, will presumably mean Rice won’t feel quite as restricted as she may have done there.

But, she responds: “I didn’t have any creative constraints there. Perhaps that was the problem, perhaps I should’ve done. I’ve never made work with any constraints.

“And one can only look back and think that that was the issue, but I made work freely and with an open heart and I continue to do so.”

The enthusiasm she has for her new theatre venture and production is entirely natural, but – as is often the case with Rice – the launch of Wise Children hasn’t been without controversy.

The company made it off the ground thanks to funding from the Arts Council, which allocated it £475,000 per year from 2018 to 2022.

When the funding was announced, some industry figures argued Rice’s success in securing it was down to having well-placed friends, rather than the strength of the application.

“The whole saga shows how abhorrent and absurd the process of getting funding remains,” wrote Christy Romer in a widely-circulated article from the Arts Professional website.

“There are, and always have been, two sets of rules: one for those with friends at the Arts Council, and one for those without.”

Reflecting on the application now the funding period has begun, Rice says: “It wasn’t easy for me, I worked incredibly hard to get that bid together.

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Emma Rice with Matthew Warchus – who has been the Old Vic’s director since 2015

“In the – I’m going to call it wreckage, maybe that’s emotional – but in the aftermath, let’s call it that, of the Globe, actually saying, ‘What is the dream, what is the ideal, Get it down on paper’… that’s what kept me sane.

“I never assumed I’d get the money, but I did think if I can build this dream up into a shape where it might get the money then it’s going to happen. I can sort of will this thing into existence.

“But it wasn’t easy, and we published the application, so I think anybody that looked at it knew that it wasn’t a shoo-in.”

The result of the funding, preparations and rehearsals culminated in the first preview performances of Wise Children this week – which have gone down well with audiences if social media is anything to go by.

But the official critics’ reviews won’t be out until the press night next Thursday, when the show officially opens.

Rice says she will try not to read the reviews – but not because she’s not interested in what critics have to say.

“I care enormously, because if you have great reviews then the international bookers come and see it, really simple things like that happen.

“So I do care enormously about reviews, and I understand they have to happen, but I don’t read them. I know the headlines, but I don’t read them anymore… I feel, I’m very protective of myself after this time.

“The thing I have to protect is my instinct, my bravery, my fearless relationship that I have to my own work, and listening to other people’s opinions doesn’t always help. And I’m not just talking about the critics, I’m very careful who I listen to.”

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Steve Tanner

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The stars of Wise Children Omari Douglas and Melissa James in rehearsals

Arguably, not having to read reviews is a luxury only afforded to Rice because she has guaranteed financial security for the next four years.

But, she points out: “The guarantee is for the support structure, the office team, and the outreach work we’re doing, the school for Wise Children, the different social aspects of the company.

“The work itself has to finance itself. So we still have to be looking for great deals, great shows, which can tour internationally and make the money back, we’re not paid for by the Arts Council, we’re partly subsidised.”

Rice has high hopes that Wise Children will be the perfect show to launch the company.

“I’ve loved Angela Carter all my life, you can see how she’s influenced a whole generation of, particularly, women – but all sorts of women.

“And in fact I was hoping to do [Wise Children] at the Globe. Because [Carter] mentions 34 Shakespeare plays I think. And it felt so perfect for this moment in my life, a love letter to theatre.”

The original novel is indeed packed with references to various Shakespeare plays – including Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

Furthermore, the show opens with the two main characters, twins Dora and Nora, celebrating their 75th birthday – which they share with William Shakespeare (he was supposedly born on 23 April).

But, Rice says, the play has an appeal which will go far beyond just Shakespeare fans.

“It’s all about high art, low art, it’s all about all the things that make me tick, and it’s joyful – right through the core of it is what a joy it is to dance and sing.”

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