Emma Rice on Steptoe and Son

Emma Rice on Steptoe and Son

We asked Artistic Director Emma Rice a few questions about directing our touring production


Why Steptoe and Son? Why Now?

I think there are many reasons for doing Steptoe now. We are in recession and the poverty experienced by the characters is not a long way from what families of all kinds are experiencing now. They reuse, recycle and graft to work their way out of poverty. One of the choices I have made in this adaptation is to see them succeed in part. By the end of the show, they have climbed out of the desperate situation we first met them in. There is obviously more money than before and basic luxuries such as a TV and a longed for cocktail cabinet, but, of course, it is not only the lack of money that holds them together. The relationship goes much deeper and darker than mere financial constraints. This brings me to the other, more personal reason for why I wanted to explore this piece: Family. Steptoe is about deep family ties, duty, freedom and the desire to break free. We all feel this at different points in our life, whether as teenagers wanting to leave the homes of our parents, as unhappy adults dreaming of life outside an unhappy marriage, or when caring for a relative and feeling our own identity ebbing away. These emotions recur throughout life in different guises, but strike at the heart of a fundamental conflict – that of duty vs. freedom. And if we have all known what it is like to crave freedom, we also know the opposite; the terrible fear of losing someone or something that we love. Albert holds on tight to Harold through fear and need, two very powerful forces. Families, eh?! Of course, families also come in all shapes and sizes. Kneehigh is a family with strong ties, friendships and expectations that go back 30 years. At Kneehigh, we really know what it is to want to escape and explore new horizons. We too feel a duty to the company and each other and sometimes this can feel overwhelming. But, unlike Harold and Albert Steptoe, we are not trapped. We understand the need for independence, but also know how brilliant family can be, how liberating family can be and how sometimes staying ‘home’ is the best thing in the world!

What elements of the original will you be faithful to, and what elements do you plan to change?

I have been very faithful to the text. Almost every word in the piece has been written by Galton and Simpson. They are two of the greatest living comedy writers so I wanted to use their work and bring their work to a new generation. I think there are fewer laughs in the text these days, but the heart of Steptoe still beats loud and strong. I chose episodes from the earlier series of the sitcom, I felt these were more emotional and the characters revealed more of their inner selves. Later in the series it was more about the situation and less about the men. What I haven’t been faithful to is the setting and the form. In this piece, the moon hovers, a woman dances, cocktails are drunk and a character morphs into Louis Armstrong. I have used music to take us through time and snap us out of naturalism. There is a strong visual poetry that reminds us of the world they are missing and at times, it feels more like an operatic staging than a domestic one.

How has your relationship with Steptoe and Son changed from watching it as a child to now?

I was a little bit young to understand it, and even watch it. I remember seeing the trailers on TV and pretending that I couldn’t sleep so I could take a look. The men made me uncomfortable and their cruelty to one another was tough viewing but they were fascinating. The dirt, the desire for sex, the claustrophobia. Even as a child, I recognized these feelings, even if I didn’t understand them. As I write this, I realise that the themes are, of course, very fairy tale… dirt, sex, cruelty, freedom! Ring any bells? I hadn’t thought of Steptoe for decades, but as my parents became older and as I dealt with my own issues of entrapment and duty, Steptoe popped into my mind. As an adult, it now didn’t feel like a retro TV programme but a significant text, exploring important themes. And this is how I have approached it, in the same way as one might approach a Beckett or a Pinter or an Ayckbourn. I think the writing is brilliant: Galton and Simpson were the voice of a generation and so very British. I haven’t trapped the work in comedy, I have let it open out into epic themes and universal dilemmas.This is big stuff and I have let it be so!

Why have you chosen to introduce the female character?

Because I was never going to make a show with just two men! Oh no! I needed to see what they were missing, what was passing these foolish, trapped, blinkered men by. The woman represents change and awareness, sex and compassion. She tries to get in to their world but they don’t let her and ultimately she moves on without them. She transforms, changes, engages and eventually leaves them in her wake. Nothing will stop her from living her life, even if it is alone. Most of my work explores female freedom in this way. I will always be interested in the battle to walk your own path, to be in your own skin, to grab life.

Some people have commented on the fact that the actress takes her clothes off a lot and have raised eyebrows at the ‘suitability’ of that. Perhaps some feel I am exploiting the female body… but they are missing the point! We have to see her changing, shedding skins in the journey to find herself and her freedom. We have to see flesh, we have to see vulnerability. Bodies are not all about sex, they are flawed and chaotic and complex. I need the audience to see her re imagine herself, see her grow and become the many aspects of a person that we are all capable of being. She is me, and my mum and my gran and my sister. I also hope she is you.

Could you tell us a little about the rehearsal process?

Well, it was different than most in that we had a lot of lines to learn. This was a big task for the actors so we broke the days up with silly badminton games and yoga. We had the cart from early in the process and I made sure that we kept working physically as well as crunching through the text. Slowly, the piece came together and we are working on it still. No piece of theatre is ever finished; you just get to know it better. The ideas and understanding keep coming!

What lessons do we learn from the show as an audience?

I hate the notion of theatre teaching lessons. I am not in the business of educating or having a ‘message’. I use theatre to explore my own experience and memory and try to stay instinctive. I want theatre to entertain, surprise and reveal, but it is really up to the audience what it might mean to them. For one person they might feel an affinity with Harold. Another with Albert. Another with the Bunny Girl! At different stages we feel and understand different things. We also have different questions. I try to explore my experience with truth and tenderness and hope that what I discover will resonate with the people who see it. They will bring their own truths and their own understanding. What I do know is that, in this show, I see my Gran peeling apples and working from dawn to dusk. I also see her shortly before she died being cared for by my parents. In my minds eye, I see me caring for my Mum and Dad as they become frail and I also see my need to run away. I see my past and my future in very British colours.

Emma Rice, Director, Joint Artistic Director of Kneehigh, 2012


Steptoe and Son

Steptoe and Son

Adapted & Directed by Emma Rice A Co-production between Kneehigh and West Yorkshire Playhouse Steptoe and Son is now on tour.

Read more