Director and co-adaptor Emma Rice talks to Heather Neill about The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales.
What made you choose “The Little Matchgirl” a year ago?
It was originally for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s candle-lit theatre, and I thought “candles, matches, magic”. Now of course we are going to all kinds of theatres where even striking a match can cause anxiety! The Playhouse is exquisite and unique, but in a normal theatre we have the advantage that the bleak, contemporary homeless world is much stronger because we can contrast with the magic more easily. Children love the show because it’s frightening and gripping and strange and magical, but adults can appreciate the deeper themes bubbling through. I’m careful not to call this a children’s show, but it’s a show you’d want to bring children to.
Your collaborator is writer Joel Horwood. How do you work together?
There’s no formula. We batted ideas around with the designer (Vicki Mortimer), the composer (Stephen Warbeck), the sound designer (Simon Baker) and lighting designer (Malcolm Rippeth). I was clear I wanted to move between magical fairytale and the modern world of the homeless and we all had ideas about basic human needs and how we might structure the whole narrative. The world was very preoccupied by the refugee crisis this time last year – and things haven’t really changed, although it’s less in the news. It’s still relevant for everyone to think about how we treat others, people who are not like ourselves. We started thinking about what people with nothing need: shelter, clothing, food.
“The Little Matchgirl” is a very sad story, but you also include “other happier tales”, “Thumbelina”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Princess and the Pea”. Why did you choose these?
Thumbelina is a tiny person going on an epic journey, which she survives. That seemed perfect for our little heroine to hear, the story of someone so vulnerable who survives all the traps and dangers and finds hope. In the middle is “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, one of the funniest stories ever written, which is also about power and who we trust. The Emperor’s nude suit is one of my favourite things ever! “The Princess and the Pea” was my favourite as a child. I loved the notion of lots of mattresses. Bed is a really big part of a child’s life: it’s a safe space, but it’s also where you have nightmares, where you have monsters under the bed. The princess - and princesses in folktale are not royal, they represent all of us - is wild, nobody knows where she’s from. She’s like an elemental goddess and the prince’s reaction is not to trust her. It made me think of the people who come to our country, who have been through so much and we expect them to be good citizens. This section is completely sung through, a folk opera.
Another recurring theme in the news is women’s vulnerability to predatory men. That’s here too, isn’t it?
Indeed. When Thumbelina gets put into servitude and marriage by the Mole, children can find it scary, but adults know very well what we are talking about. Fairytales are at their most powerful when children understand the lessons they are teaching us on an instinctive level and adults on an intellectual level.
Where did Ole Shuteye come from?
Joel Horwood found him in another, obscure Andersen story. Ole Shuteye would go into houses in his stockinged feet so as not to wake the children and he’d flick sweet milk on their eyes. If they’d been good he’d give them amazing dreams, if not they’d have no dreams at all. He’s developed into our character, a clown figure, the storyteller who links the tales. All the stories are held in a faded Edwardian theatrical world. There’s a melancholy about that, but it’s funny too and anything can happen.
Why is the Little Matchgirl played by a puppet?
Puppetry is an ancient, detailed craft and Edie Edmondson, who operates the Little Matchgirl is brilliant. I think the puppet gives you an intimacy, allows you to project on to it. It’s like a close-up in a film – very immediate, very emotional. Lindy Wright, who made her, is a mistress of the art, able to make a face that almost changes under your eye. Acting is, for me, a very grown-up thing to do; I always worry about real children on stage.
What do rhyming couplets add?
Rhyming couplets remind us of being a child and keep a motor through the narrative. And dance and music fit in very well.
The idea of the soldier is significant, isn’t it?
The soldier is an important theme in all folklore and my reading of that is that soldiers can be different things: they can be frightening because they are capable of killing, but they can also save you. Two soldiers bookend the piece: the one at the beginning who may be predatory – we are not sure – and at the end the one wearing a UN beret. We are saying that we are capable of being all things as human beings: it’s a matter of the choice you make.