Brief Encounter. Photo: Zoe Coates
Directed by Emma Rice. Canberra Theatre Centre.
Emma Rice has a simple explanation for the enduring appeal of the 1945 Noel Coward-David Lean film Brief Encounter.
''People have always had and always will have affairs - and it's devastating.''
Even people who haven't been unfaithful can wonder about what might have been and the ordinary nature of the characters in Brief Encounter makes the story easy to relate to despite the distance of time and place.
The story, set in England during the late 1930s, takes place around Milford Junction railway station. Laura (Australian actor Michelle Nightingale) thinks she is a happily married wife and mother until she meets Dr Alec Harvey (Jim Sturgeon), who's also married. One chance encounter becomes a series of planned meetings as unexpected depths of feeling are stirred in them both.
Two other couples - one younger, one older - reflect different aspects of and attitudes towards relationships.
''We have more options open to us now,'' Rice says. ''But there's still the guilt and devastation of a long-term relationship breaking up.''
Rice's production - a success on the West End and Broadway - switches between theatre, song and film footage, drawing inspiration from Coward's original play Still Life, the film he made with director David Lean, Brief Encounter, and Coward's music and lyrics for a multimedia presentation that contains surprises Rice doesn't want to reveal.
She loves romance and folk tales and both underpin her production of Brief Encounter. Among Rice's inspirations for the show have been stories of of the Selkie, or seal woman, with whom a fisherman falls in love when he sees her dancing on the rocks after slipping out of her seal skin. ''She, too, falls for him. He takes her home and hides her skin. He cares for her and she for him; they have children and live a life of contentment. She tries to be a good wife but in the end puts on her sealskin and dives back into the sea.''
This story, she says, teaches us about our true self, which will always emerge no matter how much we try to repress it: there can be no happy ending until we embrace and accept our true nature. Can Alec and Laura escape in some way and find their true selves?
Coward's songs are used for both comedy relief as well as to underline the pathos of the central situation - ''A Room with a View is a cry from the heart'' - and Rice thinks the writer's own homosexuality - illegal in Britain at the time - adds a distinctive subtext: living a life of lies, frustration, shame and deceit.
''The power of the piece is that the people are very ordinary, neither thinking of an affair: both are trying to be good people, both are trying to live decent lives. It's so touching … it's not only about what they feel for each other but a recognition of what their lives aren't.''
Rice is joint artistic director of Kneehigh, based in Cornwall. This is the third production she has brought to Australia following two other stories of passion, The Red Shoes and Tristan & Yseult - and the first that has come to Canberra.