Jane Feaver goes behind the scenes with Kneehigh, a theatre company with an international reach that remains resolutely close to its Cornish roots
These days, when Mike Shepherd appears on stage in Cornwall he is greeted as a local hero, the boy in the playground everyone most wants to play with. Some 30 years ago he founded the theatre company Kneehigh, where he remains associate artistic director.
Kneehigh began by touring small-scale village-hall productions but has since become international in scope and ambition, collaborating with, among others, the RSC and the National Theatre, retelling mythic tales — Tristan and Yseult (2003), Cymbeline (2006), Don John (2009); reimagining iconic films — A Matter of Life and Death (2007) and Brief Encounter (which, in 2010, steamed on to Broadway). The stakes are high and occasionally — perhaps inevitably — a project over-reaches itself: earlier this year, for instance, a stage realisation of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was pulled prematurely from its West End run.
All this seems very far removed from a collection of ‘barns’ on the Cornish coast, a place where, legend has it, the majority of Kneehigh’s shows are devised and rehearsed, and where I have come to see the company at work. It takes about 40 minutes from Truro, up a lane that ends just shy of the cliff and the limitless, emerald-speckled sea beyond. I am led past a couple of chalets, around a fire pit and, disarmingly, straight into a bright kitchen.
Mike Shepherd is sitting watchfully at the table. He tells me straightaway that I can say anything, ‘as long as you don’t say we’re hippies...or mention the word “cult”.’ There is nothing very hippie about this kitchen: it is an escape-to-the-country fantasy of light and air, vibrant with colour, oil-cloths and bunting, a wholesome clutter of books and catalogues, a rota for cooking and washing-up. At the far end, the wall is painted red and on it, writ large, several words float free: generosity, wonder, play, irreverence, joy...
As if on cue, a determined, friendly woman emerges from the stairwell: Emma Rice, clearly the matriarch of the place. She joined the company as an actor in 1994, and was so vociferous in rehearsals that she was encouraged to try her hand at directing.
‘We are citizens of the world,’ Mike Shepherd declares and then quotes King Mark from Tristan: ‘We don’t look inland there’s not much point. No, outward, outward lies the way!’ Shepherd grew up in the fishing port of Mevagissey, where, in the olden days, he explains, the sailors were prone to marrying out — Spanish, Portuguese, Italian wives. It led to an eclectic mix, one from which the company might be said to take its lead, continually renewing itself with talent, from here, from Iceland, Bulgaria, Poland.
Ten years ago, Éva Magyar invited Shepherd and Rice to her show in Edinburgh, in which she appeared wearing antlers, covered in blood. ‘My god, she’s interesting,’ they agreed. After that, Rice went to work with Magyar in Budapest and in turn Magyar — not the predictable drama school ingénue, but a sinewy, magnetic performer — was cast as Yseult.
Magyar is now rehearsing as one of a trio of equally distinctive women, playing in the new summer show The Wild Bride, about a girl whose father accidentally sells her to the devil. The devil, Stuart McLoughlin, is dressed in scarlet long johns, with an American, country twang — an unnerving cross between John-Boy Walton and Deliverance. I watch from inside the studio barn. Behind me there’s a rail of dressing-up clothes; against the wall, a huge scythe, a pitchfork, a slashed, leatherette chair and, in the middle of the room, an A-frame ladder. There is poetry in every object, Yeats’s ‘rag and bone shop of the heart’.
Outside, under an awning, the performers go through their paces. The set — a tall structure of branches and ladders — has been designed by Bill Mitchell, former artistic director, hot-foot from mounting The Passion in Port Talbot, with Michael Sheen.
The past ten years have brought the company national and international attention and success. The big question is, where do they go now?
‘At the very moment when we could have left Cornwall,’ Emma Rice says, ‘when we could have gone almost anywhere, we have come up with a profound and defiant answer: the Asylum.’
On paper, the Asylum is a glorified and glorious purpose-designed tent. The name, Rice confesses, was nicked: the Asylum was a Nottingham nightclub she once frequented, where the rejects hung out, the goths, the punks. In Kneehigh’s hands it is a space that ‘feels like home and is home’, where ‘we can do whatever we want, with whoever we want, eat whatever we want’. It is a place of sanctuary, of refuge, with ‘a little bit of madness in there, too’.
I tell her that I’ve noticed the contribution underwear has made to her aesthetic, most of the cast in The Red Shoes stripped down to their well-worn vests and Y-fronts. Yes, she says, laughing, it is how she works, stripping off the layers, exposing human vulnerability and frailty. It is about trust, ‘the trust of revealing that amount of flawed flesh’. With such physical gestures, the barriers come down: the audience, she says emphatically, are not ‘spectators’, they are ‘participants’. This is not a photocopied production rolled out night after night, it is an experience, everyday transformations ‘heightened in theatre’. Furthermore, working with long-time actors, she says, ‘you have to reinvent people. If I was working with freelancers I wouldn’t have cast that big bloke in a dress...’ It is exactly this sense of fun and surprise that sustains a loyal and rapidly expanding fan base.
Before leaving Cornwall, I’m taken to see the Asylum site itself. The directions in the brochure are marvellously vague: ‘follow the path that is the A30, then gently step away from it...’ It is a beautiful, bucolic spot. Grand and incongruous, the tent is still only half-built, a construction on a large scale of the sort of five-star modules that children were given to play with as kits in the 1970s. There’s a workman like a crow trying to fix the roof canvas, exposed to a bracing wind straight off the sea. Already I feel the excitement of anticipation. ‘Generally,’ I say to the man in charge, ‘the price you pay for living somewhere beautiful is that nothing happens. But here, it seems, you can have your cake and eat it.’ If, like him, you know of Kneehigh already, chances are I’m preaching to the converted; if not, you’re in for a treat.
Midnight’s Pumpkin and The Wild Bride are at the Asylum until 28 August. The Wild Bride is at the Lyric Hammersmith from 7 to 24 September and then on tour: www.thekneehighasylum.co.uk