When Geordie Brookman took over the role of Artistic Director at State Theatre Company of South Australia, he immediately announced that Adelaide’s mainstage theatre company would be looking to create work with theatre companies around the world as well as with local independent companies.
That endeavour came to fruition earlier this year when, in association with Sydney’s Bell Shakespeare Company, State Theatre mounted Comedy of Errors. The company has now combined forces with Arts Projects Australia and Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre Company to present the UK ensemble’s hit production of Brief Encounter in Australia beginning with a run in Adelaide. “It’s the first big step in creating some really meaningful relationships with overseas companies as well as ones here in Australia,” Brookman told me during an interview last year. “Kneehigh is a company unlike any other and some may remember when they were last here with The Red Shoes. So when an opportunity to partner them for Brief Encounter came up, we grabbed it. It also gives Adelaide audiences a chance to experience Kneehigh again because they are a company that should be touring Australia on a regular basis,” he’d added. Based on Noël Coward’s one-act play Still Life that was later turned into the now iconic film under the name Brief Encounter, the stage production is a multi-media event featuring live actors, musicians, film footage and puppets as well as a toy train. “It’s a show that Kneehigh have been doing on and off for a number of years now,” English actor Joe Alessi says. “And it’s changed a lot because every time we bring it back we try and make it even better. It’s constantly evolving – for instance we used to have an interval but we don’t now – and we’ve completely cut some scenes and tweaked others. “I’m not saying it was bad before – it’s had some amazing reviews and the subject matter about love and how it manifests itself is something audiences can really relate to – but it’s just that we always want to bring something new to it.” Two Australian actors, Kate Cheel and Michelle Nightingale, spent much of August in the UK rehearsing with the company ahead of the Australian tour. “They’ve been great,” Alessi says, “and both learnt their lines really well before arriving and even just having two new actors helps bring a freshness to the play for the other actors. Kate and Michelle have brought a whole new energy to their roles. “It’s given the play a completely new dynamic and energy and the challenge for us to meet that new dynamic and spirit,” he adds. The work is set at an English train station in the early 40s and tells of a married woman falling completely for another man. “It really encapsulates that era because it’s a play about a forbidden love that was totally against the suburban English way at that time,” Alessi remarks. “So [in Brief Encounter] a woman with very strong moral values is really tested by the conservatism of that time. Divorce would have been frowned upon and regarded as scandalous. Remember the furor when King Edward had to abdicate because he wanted to marry a divorcee? That’s how much people were bound by convention at the time. “So you couldn’t really set Brief Encounter in modern times because it just wouldn’t make any sense,” he continues with a laugh. “People seem to have affairs all the time now. “But it remains such a classic film and one that any fan of film would have seen,” Alessi suggests. “So I was already very familiar with the film but what we do in the play is not a straight take of the film. It’s very much an adaptation, even though the story is still very much the same as the Noël Coward play.” Alessi goes on to say that Kneehigh’s director, Emma Rice, likes to take classic tales and revamp them. “Kneehigh like to work with folk stories and stories about love,” he says, “because they are fundamental themes and quite timeless. So the company always likes to do that and Brief Encounter is just such a classic story that transcends time. So Emma saw that in the story and also in Still Life, the play that preceded the film. And Kneehigh began 32 years ago as a theatre company for children and has evolved from that.” The actor, who hasn’t been to Australia since touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company some 20 years ago, and has never been to Adelaide, says he became involved in acting by accident rather than design. “I had what you might call a normal job but then somehow feel into acting,” Alessi recalls. “One thing led to another and I eventually went to London to train at drama school. And then Emma at Kneehigh said, ‘Oh, you should come and play with us’. And I like that she used the word ‘play’ rather than ‘work’ because that’s what Kneehigh are all about. It’s how the company works – we play at creating great stories.” Brief Encounter opens with a couple of musicians entertaining the audience as they take to their seats. “It’s such a fantastic theatre experience,” Alessi concludes. “What I love is that a lot of people come along expecting to see a straight reading of the film, but what we do is entirely different. So I love the surprise on the faces of the audience when they see what we have done with it.” Brief Encounter Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre Tuesday, September 10 until Saturday, September 28 statetheatrecompany.com.au