British Theater Director Emma Rice Previews Her 'Brief Encounter' Stage Adaptation

Courtesy of the Wallis Anenberg Center for the Performing Arts

"There's a brilliant, perfect film out there and there's no need to replicate that," Rice says of her 90-minute stage adaptation, running through March 23 at Beverly Hills' Wallis Annenberg Center.

The David Lean classic Brief Encounter began as a short play entitled Still Life written by Noel Coward in 1936. Released in 1945, the movie starred British actors Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as a couple who fall in love despite being married to others. It is an incisive study of repressed passion and the triumph of duty over desire, hardly the stuff of whimsy and music. And yet that's precisely what Britain's Kneehigh Theatre director Emma Rice brings to her 90-minute stage adaptation, running through March 23 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

"In many ways the musical freedom as well as the other characters and chorus really highlight the repression of our key central lovers," Rice tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It absolutely heightens their inability to sing freely and dance."

Where the original movie made liberal use of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 2, Rice adapts Coward's poems set to contemporary blues composed for the show, as well as the Coward songs "Any Little Fish," "Mad About the Boy" and "A Room With a View." But she is quick to point out that her Brief Encounter isn't a musical adaptation but a romantic tragedy with music in it.

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In the play, a suburban housewife (Hannah Yelland) meets a country doctor (Jim Sturgeon) by chance at a railway station. A series of stolen afternoons blossom into a star-crossed romance in which neither can bring themselves to pursue their desire.

One element key to Rice's production is the housewife's past as a pianist. The character used to love playing but stopped because her husband doesn't like music. In the movie this is mentioned in passing, but taking a cue from Coward's original Still Life, Rice couples the woman's restored musical talents with her burgeoning romantic affair.

"There's a brilliant, perfect film out there and there's no need to replicate that," said Rice, whose multimedia play is scarcely a word-for-word adaptation, but uses projected elements from the film for the cast to interact with. "The only reason for doing a theater show is to look at it from a different angle, to reimagine it, to bring new elements to it."

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While audiences have always been moved by romance in movies, dramas that focus exclusively on falling in love seldom work. Brief Encounter is one of the rare exceptions.

One source Rice did not consult for her adaptation is the 1984 remake, Falling in Love, directed by Ulu Grosbard and starring Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. Called manipulative by Roger Ebert, that movie got lukewarm reviews and was a box-office dud.

"They got together at the end. All the tension goes. Two people falling in love is ultimately not that interesting. What is interesting is the context, the culture, the community, the impact," Rice explained. "Two people meet. They have this tremendous powerful connection and nothing happens. Nothing can happen. That’s why it's powerful. Their moral duty overrides their heart. I think that’s where the power lies."