I went to see ‘Wise Children’ at the Old Vic theatre in Waterloo last week after Rebecca of bookishbeck won a pair of tickets and very kindly offered her spare one to me. I also managed to track down a copy of the book from the library and read it this week. ‘Wise Children’ is Angela Carter’s final novel published in 1991 a year before her death and the stage adaptation is Emma Rice’s first project with her new theatre company (also called Wise Children) since leaving her role as artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016.
Dora and Nora Chance are the illegitimate twin daughters of one of the great Shakespearean actors, Sir Melchior Hazard, whose twin brother Peregrine is believed to be dead. As Dora and Nora celebrate their 75th birthday towards the end of the 20th century, Melchior is about to turn 100 (and possibly Peregrine too…). The story is narrated by Dora who looks back on the sisters’ humble beginnings in south London brought up by the eccentric Grandma Chance and their career as a double act as chorus girls in the weird and wonderful world of Hollywood, theatre and music hall variety shows.
The theme of duality lies at the heart of the story and it’s easy to see how Carter has influenced Ali Smith, who wrote the introduction to the Vintage Books edition of ‘Wise Children’. It isn’t a particularly long novel but it is stuffed with detail and inspired by an eclectic range of sources. References to Shakespeare are abundant, particularly ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and the various contrasts, opposites and contradictions in the story itself take many forms: illusion and reality, north and south London, social class, legitimacy and illegitimacy, incidences of mistaken identity and of course the twins themselves. One of the most striking aspects is how very little ultimately separates the highbrow culture associated with Shakespeare’s plays and the social circles that Sir Melchior moves in and the somewhat less refined entertainment industry where Dora and Nora have made their mark.
The stage adaptation captures the subversive and tragi-comic tone of the novel. There is a fair amount of over-the-top pantomime-style farce but there are some genuinely poignant and affecting scenes too, although reading the novel afterwards shows that some of the darker parts of the story are somewhat less prominent here. Whereas the book is narrated only by Dora, both sisters break the fourth wall as they tell their life story. Grandma Chance played by Katy Owen is a foul-mouthed riot while Nora and Dora are initially portrayed as puppets and then three sets of actors of different genders and ethnicities – most notably Melissa James and Omari Douglas who are brilliant as the twins at the peak of their career.
As a life-affirming celebration of theatre and showbusiness, the exuberant energy of this production is hard to beat. The theatre production of ‘Wise Children’ will be showing at the Old Vic until 10th November and will then tour nationally until April 2019. I am also keen to read more of Carter’s work and will probably look out for her collection of feminist fairytales ‘The Bloody Chamber’ next.