Nick Le Mesurier reviews Wise Children at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
How do you begin to describe a unique, phantasmagorical event? One so full of vitality, magic, wonder, spectacle, warmth, wit and sheer delight that almost everything one has ever seen seems to pale by comparison?
Well, by keeping a check on the superlatives for one thing. But Emma Rice’s marvellous adaptation of Angela Carter’s magic realist novel Wise Children genuinely defies moderation. For over two hours I was gripped by one of the most exciting, absorbing, enlivening and uplifting theatrical experiences I have ever had, and for all I know ever will have. It is that good.
So, in a probably vain attempt to describe the indescribable I will begin. The story follows the lives and fortunes of the Chance sisters Nora and Dora (Mirabelle Gremaud / Omari Douglas/ Etta Murfitt and Bettrys Jones / Melissa James / Gareth Snook) in their journey from abandoned children to theatrical, if not glory, at least some sort of survival. Bastard daughters of the insanely vain actor Melchior Hazard (Ankur Bahl / Paul Hunter), they are abandoned to the care of Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), who brings them up haphazardly but affectionately until they get their big chance as chorus members in one of Melchior’s adaptations of Shakespeare. Much turns on the issues of paternity: who is really father to whom (as one character quotes, “father is a hypothesis; mother is a fact”). Which is the real family: the birth family, or the theatre itself which provides a kind of family, as prone to infighting and deception as the other, and arguably no less tight knit and real?
To go into the intricacies of the plot any further would take up too much space, and in a sense doesn’t really matter. The play is about theatre itself, the theatre of imagined identity and the theatre of real life. In both, knowing who you are matters most. The play teases these questions by giving us the whole gamut of theatrical traditions: there are elements of circus (the athleticism of some of the actors is astonishing); vaudeville, tragedy, comedy, melodrama, pantomime and musical. It has a lot to do with sex. It has everything to do with the strange, magnetic power of theatre to command the greatest loyalties, evoke the darkest passions, and extract the highest of prices from its adherents.
Every step of this play drips with meaning, but somehow it is never bogged down by it. Maybe it’s the quality of production, the brilliance of the actors, the gorgeous costumes, and the intricate and ever evolving set, or maybe just the sheer spectacle of it all. Whatever: I think Wise Children will go down in history as one of the greatest moments of British theatre this century. As I said, it is that good.