The beauty of seeing a show several times is that you can take in so many different things across the hours you spend in a theatre with it. With it being Emma Rice (and, let’s face it, Katy Owen) I’d booked four tickets in advance of seeing Wise Children at all, and added a fifth to my tally just to keep me going – so I knew that I had time to drink in different elements of the show separately. Getting from announcement to first preview seemed interminably long, so when that came around it was a bit overwhelming; the show was also in need of some tightening up, so making any judgments on it early on would have been a mistake (not that it stopped some people from writing reviews prior to its official opening).
Over the six-week run Wise Children has developed considerably, blossoming into a show as joyous as I’ve come to expect from Emma Rice. At tonight’s performance (their last at the Old Vic) I was quite content to gaze at the set and other designs, trying to delve further into the production through Vicki Mortimer’s eyes. Recently I’ve also had design at the forefront of my mind, since I came across a tweet from Tom Scutt wondering why WhatsOnStage had failed to mention design in their review of The Wolves – and a prominent critic suggesting that primarily critics tend to focus on the text rather than anything else.
I think my first reaction to that was “BULLSHIT”. Speaking for myself, certainly, and many people I know. Firstly, I’ve always thought audiences might like to get some sort of idea of what they’ll be seeing (in addition to any production shots they’ve looked at), but also my opinion is that a production can only truly fly if all of its elements work as one. Even if a stage is relatively blank, or costumes plain; if a designer is credited for anything, it’s worth talking about.
It’s interesting to see what different people draw from a source text – this is why I’d take a book being adapted for the stage over a film any day. It’s also why I love Emma Rice’s work so much, as well as that of the people that she brings in to work with her. This production has a butterfly motif running through it that I really didn’t see coming; these creatures don’t really feature too heavily in the book, so it’s fascinating that they have been picked up on. Though when you think about it they are rather pertinent to a lot of what’s going on: there are three stages of Dora & Nora played by three different pairs of actors, Wheelchair emerges like a butterfly from a chrysalis at the end, and then there’s Perry’s obsession with them to consider.
There are some wonderful butterfly puppets that flutter around at various points during the show, and similar designs make their way onto headdresses for showgirl Dora & Nora. The twins’ party outfits have sequinned butterflies emblazoned on them too, which isn’t immediately obvious if you’re not sat too close.
As well as the butterfly theme, Wise Children fits with Emma Rice’s idea of being a “love letter to the theatre” in terms of design as well as content. I may be a bit slow on picking this up, but it’s almost like a show within a show, as the ensemble pops up as stage hands and background assistance in different scenes; this is a great reworking from the book, which is basically Dora’s autobiography. The openness of the stage is the show’s great strength, as the action flows freely from all angles and retains a relative informality – it means the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, though that doesn’t mean it can’t go to unexpectedly dark places.
Along with some more gorgeous lighting design from Malcolm Rippeth, Wise Children is a truly stunning show to just look at.