Emma Rice peels back the layers of Noel Coward

Emma Rice says she’s regularly asked whether Noel Coward is relevant today. She’s patient in her reply in a room at the Guthrie Theater where her company Kneehigh Theater, from Cornwall in England, is about to mount its critically acclaimed production of “Brief Encounter.”

She admits that for a long time she had a cliched view of Coward as just the witty performer who stood around in a white jacket smoking a cigarette in a long holder. Then she began to delve into his works as she prepared to adapt and direct “Brief Encounter.” She says, yes, the jacket and the cigarette were definitely Coward.

“But he is also the man who wrote amazing poetry about the barrenness of love and loneliness,” she says, before noting he also wrote bawdy songs like “Alice is at it Again,” and popular songs like “Mad about the Boy.”

“As I began to read more and more of him he becomes this amazing everyman.” she says.

It all comes together in “Brief Encounter,” which began life as a one act play, and then Coward rewrote as a film which was made just at the end of World war II. It’s the story of a chance meeting at a railway station between a man and a woman. They are both married to other people, but they fall in love. Rice says she believes the story speaks deeply to most people.

“I feel it’s sort of basic to the human condition,” Rice says. “There can’t be many of us who haven’t fallen in love with someone we shouldn’t, had a partner who’s fallen in love with someone they shouldn’t. It’s really what being human, and passionate, and alive is about.”

Rice and her company arrived over the weekend and are now rehearsing the show in preparation for opening this weekend. The play is not a simple recreation of the movie. Rice adapted the original script and has blended in not only some of Coward’s songs, but her company wrote original music for some of his poetry and blended that into the show.

Rice says she’s been struck by how well the adaptation of what many people see as a quintessential British story has done in the US, with each city reacting in a slightly different way.

She admits that after working with the material for two and a half years her own understanding of the play has changed, in part because she has changed. She’s looking forward to that continuing.

“I think this will speak to me for the rest of my life,” she says.

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