Tom Fitzsimons - Dominion Post
The British theatre company Kneehigh Theatre has a distinctive, bucolic way of coming up with new plays.
First, they get cast and crew together in a handful of open-air stone barns near the coast in southern England. There's no mobile reception. Everyone has to help gather the wood to cook food and warm themselves. The background noise is provided by sheep.
"Who were very, very loud, through the whole process," says Audrey Brisson, one of the stars of The Wild Bride, which opens the New Zealand International Arts Festival tomorrow night. "I think I can still hear them."
Despite that distraction, it's all very amazing, she says.
"You wake up in the morning and you go do your jogging and your yoga on this big field next to the sea. And it's beautiful – very, very beautiful."
Irreverent, anarchic, playful, liberated, cheeky – these are the sorts of words Kneehigh, which has been going for 30 years, uses to describe itself. The whole pastoral outdoor thing is supposed to inflect the production right from the start. It really does, Brisson says.
"Sometimes you don't think you're working at all. You're playing a game of volleyball at the beginning of the day and then `boof', you just realise you've been working on a scene without even knowing. That's how fantastic they are. It's all about playing, it's all about fun."
Kneehigh has enjoyed plenty of success in Britain, progressively working with bigger theatres (as well as performing in its own 1000-seater tent) and making more ambitious works.
That's translated across the Atlantic too – its 2010 play Brief Encounter, inspired by the 1945 Noel Coward film, had a rapturous run on Broadway. The Wild Bride's San Francisco season was extended by a fortnight after glowing reviews.
This version of the play had its genesis in an earlier, failed attempt by director Emma Rice to reinterpret a folktale collected by the Brothers Grimm called The Handless Maiden. She made it too pretty and clean, she has written, and it flopped in Hungary where it first showed.
The story describes a deal done between a farmer and the devil – the farmer gets untold riches; the devil gets whatever's behind the farmer's mill. The farmer thinks it's just an old apple tree, but it turns out to be his daughter.
Even after her disappointing first go at it, something about the tale stuck with Rice, so she attacked it again, this time with a darker, grimier feel. Drawing on both the folktale and a range of other influences – the Depression-era Dustbowl in the United States, guitarist Robert Johnson's legendary pact with the devil, even African landmines – she came up with the production that's playing in Wellington.
Brisson calls it a "complicated story made very, very simple" about the loss of innocence and the inevitable trials that make up a life. It's told from the girl's point of view as she goes through various tortures, including losing her hands. Three actresses play her in different stages of her journey.
"I play her both when she's still very young and innocent, and then I play the break, when she finally realises and she switches completely. That possibility of experiencing and going through the change of a character makes it very, very interesting and challenging."
The set is full of mud and leaves – it's as earthy as they come. The story is narrated by Satan himself – a gory figure with recognisable human qualities who might be described as "a very tall Gollum", Brisson says.
There's also plenty of music in the play, mainly of the country and bluegrass variety. "The music, I think, is a character of its own in the show. Without the music, the show would not be what it is ... I actually realised, a month ago, on stage, after five months of performing it, that there isn't one moment of silence in the show. There's always music. It's very present."
Brisson sings and plays the accordion in the play. The musical demands are no problem for her – she has a long and varied performance background, starting with getting on top of a pile of people on a bicycle for a Cirque du Soleil show when she was 4.That connection lasted – she later starred with the famous circus company as a vocalist in their show called Quidam. Even though it wasn't a theatre troupe, it had some similarities, she says. One of the clowns used to give her acting lessons.
"Of course, you travel with acrobats instead of actors and musicians. But at the end of the day, we're all just performers – performing monkeys."
She's also at the start of a promising screen career – with small roles in recent films including Clint Eastwood's Hereafter and Madonna's W.E.. Both directors were "very, very kind and hugely intimidating", she says.
For now, though, her priority is Kneehigh, which is unlike any other company she's ever worked with, she says. "You have that sense of being a part of a family that has been there for 30 years ... But they've also moved so much since the beginning. They haven't become a grounded, boring company. The fun has never left."
The Wild Bride, Opera House, tomorrow until Monday.