Director says themes in Noel Coward's 'Brief Encounter' remain timelessby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis, Minn. — It's been 70 years since Noel Coward's movie "Brief Encounter" became an international sensation, but the director of an acclaimed new theatrical adaptation says the story has lost none of its emotional punch.
The production by the British Kneehigh Theater opens at the Guthrie in Minneapolis this weekend. Director Emma Ricesays the story about an illicit love affair between a man and a woman each married to someone else resonates with just about everyone.
The movie of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter starts with two people in a train station and tiny speck of dirt.
"Can I help you?" says a suave man in a fedora.
"Oh, no, please, it's only something in my eye" responds the woman.
" Try pulling your eyelid down as far as it'll go," the tea lady chimes in.
"And then blowing your nose," says a railwayman.
"Please let me look, I happen to be a doctor," insists the man with the hat.
"That's very kind of you," she says.
"Turn round to the light please."
"And that's how it all began," says the woman from some time in the future. "Just through me getting a little piece of grit in my eye."
The beginning of an illicit love affair.... the beginning of passion, and pain.
"I feel it's sort of basic to the human condition," Emma 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."
Emma Rice is the artistic director of Kneehigh Theater, a company from Cornwall in England. Rice adapted and directs the company's retelling of "Brief Encounter." She says the story of the couple, their spouses, and even the onlookers in the station spoke to her.
"I've certainly been there, and I have certainly been in the positions of all of them at some point," she says with a rueful smile.
Brief Encounter is a story about the choices and implications of choosing one alternative over another. In Brief Encounter the married woman has to choose between leaving her family and losing true love. Rice likens it to a folk tale, dealing with very basic human issues.
"There's always damage, and there's always a cost. But the cost of her staying is the cost of herself. And really all these stories, they don't give us the answers, they just say 'We know." These stories know what we feel and know the dilemmas deep within. And you make your choices, but there's costs whichever way you choose."
The Kneehigh Theater production of Brief Encounter is not a simple re-telling of the movie. Rice went back to the script, and the earlier play on which it was based. She also gained access to Noel Cowards entire creative archive.
"And I really loved trying to find bits and bobs of his music and putting it in," she says. "But we also found bits of his poetry and put it to contemporary music so the language of music that flows through the production really spans from the 1930s right up to 2010."
Emma Rice says until she began working on Brief Encounter, she had a cliched view of Coward, of a man wearing a white jacket, with a cigarette holder saying witty things. Now she is in awe of his talent.
"This was a gay man in the 1930s," she says. "He knew what it was like to feel love that he wasn't allowed to feel. And yet the generosity of putting those words into two heterosexual people's mouths and genuinely charting the pain, the simple pain, of what was impossible. I mean, I've got goosebumps even thinking about it." For the show Rice employs a mixture of live action and video, capturing the intimacy of the theater with the subtle grandeur of a black and white film.
"I wanted to honor the fact that it had been a film, and honor that it had been a really theatrical event, it's just a big cake. This is what comes out."
Rice says after having worked with Brief Encounter for almost three years, she is still finding new things about it. She realizes though it's not the material that has changed, so much as her.
"I think this will speak to me for the rest of my life."
Brief Encounter was a hit in Britain when it opened two years ago. Now it's touring the US. Rice says each city reacts differently. After what she calls the reserve of New York, and the loving embrace of San Francisco, she's now eager to see how Minnesota will respond.