WISE Children director Emma Rice has an admission to make as Blue Beard arrives at York Theatre Royal.

"I've actually never liked the story of Blue Beard. I love fairy tales, but this is one I've always avoided," she says. "I thought it was just about controlling women, telling them off for asking questions and being curious. But something changed a couple of years ago, and the story started to nag at me."

In what way, Emma? "I have become more and more haunted by the regular chime of women being attacked, murdered and abused. Sarah Everard's shocking murder and the ensuing chaos of her vigil captured the public's imagination," she says.

"However, for me, it was the murder of Zara Aleena that really brought home my anger and made me think about adapting Blue Beard. She was just walking home. A week later, her family, friends, and people she would never know, met at the spot where she was killed and walked her memory home. This was the moment that I knew I wanted to walk Blue Beard's victim's home. I wanted to use my craft, my platform, and my experience to make a small difference."

Emma realised her reasoning for telling this story was not to understand or excuse Blue Beard, but to breathe life into the women he tried to control. "I wanted to express not just the rage, grief and heartbreak so many of us feel at lives cut short, but also to celebrate brilliant living women in all their wild and surprising glory," she says.

"So, my version of Blue Beard is very definitely about the women, about celebrating women and about saying enough is enough! We will not be afraid anymore."

Adapted for the stage by Emma, Blue Beard carries the weight and power of a classic drama, she contends. "It's almost Shakespearean and most definitely Greek in structure; I hope audiences will feel entertained, moved and transported.

"We found the subject matter very powerful in rehearsals and there have been lots of laughter and tears. I hope audiences will share the joy, the darkness, the fury and the hope. It certainly won't be boring!"

Blue Beard, Emma's fifth show for Wise Children, finds her returning to her roots at Cornwall's now disbanded Kneehigh Theatre, where she specialised in folk tales before her brief encounter as the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe.

"After the shared trauma of lockdown and, in its wake, the long haul of getting back into the world, it felt like the right time to go back to my roots. 'Wonder tales' (as I like to call them) are an enduring source of inspiration for me," she says.

"Magical and universal, they are ripe for re-interpretation and reinvention. They challenge and delight in equal measure and allow me to explore complex and important themes without having to be literal or naturalistic. They lend themselves to music and movement and I love them! With Blue Beard, I am back in my theatrical element."

Given the themes of male violence and control, can York audiences expect a challenging evening? "Well, yes in some way," says Emma. "Our production does not shy away from violence and its devasting effect, but it is also hopeful and empowering.

"I don't think audiences will come away thinking everything's awful and it's never going to change. Instead, I want people to look these issues squarely in the eye and think: 'right, that's it. The world does not have to be like this, and I feel inspired to do something about it'.

"It's also worth saying that I'm not a 'naturalistic' director. We use lots of different storytelling techniques to give the subject layers and nuance. This means a violent act could feature on stage as a dance, or a song. It won't be graphic and unpleasant. Sometimes violence is suggested, sometimes it is shown in a metaphorical way and, at the end, we have a huge, bloody real life struggle."

Although the underlying themes are urgent and dark, Emma's show is not all darkness. "Blue Beard pulses with stylish theatricality, gritty reality and genuine emotion," she says. There's also comedy. Katy Owen, an actor I've worked with for many years, is one of the most brilliant comic actors working today, and she plays a nun at the Convent of the Fearful, F****d and Furious so you can imagine where that goes!

"Using music, dance, and storytelling, I want the production to seduce with high comedy, tragedy, magic, romance and just a sprinkle of spine-tingling horror. It's a blockbusting rollercoaster!"

Wise Children presents Blue Beard, York Theatre Royal, February 27 to March 9, except next Sunday and Monday; 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 7.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

By Charles Hutchinson