Showbiz, sex, scandal and family drama lie at the heart of Wise Children, the late Angela Carter’s final novel. Emma Rice’s theatre company of the same name is next month presenting a stage adaptation of the book at the Coventry Belgrade. Indeed, Wise Children will be Wise Children’s debut production!

“I’ve loved Angela Carter’s work for many, many years,” says Artistic Director Emma. “I previously did an adaptation of Nights At The Circus, so have been thinking about doing Wise Children for a long time. I was certainly thinking about putting it on at The Globe before I left the post of artistic director there. After I’d had artistic differences with the board at The Globe, I decided to start my own theatre company so that I could work for myself and have complete creative licence. So when I woke up with a clean slate in front of me, I already knew I was going to do this piece. It’s really a love letter to theatre, so it felt perfect for me at this time. With this piece, I could celebrate theatre, the family of choice that is theatre, and all the work, the highs and the lows that is theatre. I thought Wise Children would be perfect for the company name as well.

I’m at a time in my life where I need to be really smart and clever with the direction I take myself in, but at the same time I don’t want to lose that joy in theatre which is almost like childhood innocence. I thought that me being a wise child and my company being Wise Children was just perfect.”

Wise Children closely follows the trials, tribulations and triumphs of theatrical twins Nora and Dora Chance. Emma explains why she thinks their story makes for such good theatre: “I think Wise Children really encapsulates why people go to the theatre - the glamour, the sawdust, the threat! It’s a cracking good story. We’ve really put time and care into our characters, and we go through an intense history with them that’s very theatrical. It really sends the audience out into the world afterwards feeling positive about their ability to endure hardship, and feeling aware of what a joy it is to dance and sing, which is what my lead characters say all the way through the play. 

“Nora and Dora are just fantastic birds! Top birds, as I like to call them! They work hard. They talk a lot about being illegitimate in every way throughout the play. They were born on the poor side of the tracks and have really grafted through showbusiness the hard way. They’re not completely identical twins. Dora has got secrets in her past and is much more guarded and sharp than Nora, while Nora is very emotional.

With the Chance twins, we really go through their history in its entirety - their loves, their losses and the abuses that they suffer. Yet throughout, they’re such good fun and are never victims. They’re always joyful, irreverent and, actually, very sexy. We initially meet them when they’re 75 and they’re still sexy and full of sauciness!”

Emma made the decision to be fluid in terms of age, gender and race when casting Wise Children: “I just made the decision straight away that to cast a type for a lot of the characters in this play would be so narrowing. Imagine how hard it would be to find two 75-year-old women who look alike and could sing and dance! Honestly, when you’re telling stories, the audience will go anywhere with you. Anything is possible. It didn’t matter what gender, what background, what race anybody I cast was from. So I’ve gone for a completely diverse company where each person is cast because of their spirit, and it just works. The audience doesn’t for a minute start separating men and women. We tell them what gender each character is, what their relationship to each other is, and the audience just believe it because the actors are so brilliant.”

The Belgrade is one of only two venues where Emma herself will be taking to the stage as Nora - but it seems she didn’t have much choice in the matter: “The actor who’s playing Nora couldn’t do the last two dates, so the choice was either to get somebody else or for me to do it. So I thought I would, and I’m really looking forward to it!”

Organising Wise Children as an ensemble theatre company was an absolute no-brainer for Emma:

“Ensemble theatre is what I’ve done all my life. I trained quite classically as an actor at the Guildhall, and then went on to do a lot of work in children’s theatre using storytelling forms where you work very tightly as a company. Then I spent some time in Poland and very much worked in an ensemble, and spent some time doing chorus work. I think ensemble is just the way I like to work. Everybody’s on stage all the time, everybody tells the story, everybody sings, everybody dances, and that’s just where my whole career and practice has led to. I never like choosing a famous play and just sticking a famous person in it. The focus for me is to find a great story and a great ensemble to tell it.”

She has high hopes for the future of the company: “I just hope we make fantastic, positive theatre that enhances the lives of the audience and those in the company creating it, and that we also train the next generation of brilliant artists at the same time.”

Emma is very secretive about what she has in the pipeline for Wise Children: “I do have specific plans, but they’re secret, so I’m not going to tell you! I have the next four years planned out, but I’m not going to tell anyone just yet.”

So why does she think people should visit the Belgrade next month to see Wise Children? “The show is a celebration of theatre. It’s funny, full of music, and is really a modern Shakespeare full of twists and turns, knots, twins and cases of mistaken identity. But ultimately, it’s a show about endurance, joy and hope.” 

Wise Children shows at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from Tuesday 2 to Saturday 6 April.

Interview by Lauren Cole