Experimenting expertly with cinematic techniques, Emma Rice’s adaption of Noël Coward’s celebrated Brief Encounter, offers a spectacularly visual depiction of the passionate, and yet tragic love affair between Alec and Laura. Rice’s adaption is defined by its perceptive observation of the bitter, and yet unspoken, irony at the heart Coward’s vision. Yet, cleverly, this is counterbalanced throughout by a wonderfully physical and yet self-conscious humour.
The staging is spectacular, with the use of truly stunning projection allowing for both an engaging intimacy and compelling sense of the speed and fleeting nature of the pair’s encounters. Supported by a strong musical score, this results in a spectacle of cinematic proportion, in which the blurring of stage and screen beautifully expresses the conflicted emotions and jarring repression at the heart of the script. Through the constant opposition of the excitement of the love affair and the claustrophobia of the home, we are led into the maze of hopes, dreams, guilt and responsibilities which characterise a universal human experience.
However, it cannot be ignored that, at times, the play’s tendency towards the comic detracts from the tragedy at its heart. What seemed to be key pieces of dialogue were lost on occasion to the more slapstick elements of the script, which caused deeply poignant moments to become somewhat subsumed and lessened by the comedic personalities and events surrounding them. Combined with the somewhat hasty passing of the play’s climax, I was left feeling somewhat frustrated myself, denied the cathartic release which seemed to be implied by the play’s cinematic framing.
The use of the puppet children, too, seemed a little jarring. While Laura’s relationship with her children is at most superficial within this adaption, it is this kind of responsibility which influences her decisions and action and their representation through puppetry seemed to bizarrely contradict this.
Overall, however, Rice’s vision in Brief Encounter is spectacular. It explores the fine line between depicting an intensely personal tragic repression and cinematic cliché, with a wry tongue in cheek humour, which is engaging and witty. In this way, perhaps in its ability to both immediately engage the audience and frustrate our hopes and expectations, Rice’s adaption entertains the true meaning of Coward’s script, that the beauty of real life lies, ironically, in the frustrated struggle between our perception of what is but also what could have been.