It’s always an anxious moment when you go to see a book you love adapted for the stage, no matter how glowing the reviews. I’d heard good things about Knee High Theatre’s production of Rebecca, but there was still a little part of me that was worried about what they were going to do to one of my favourite novels.
As it turns out, I had no reason to worry. I saw Rebecca yesterday at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, and loved it. It’s a unique interpretation of a well-known story, which manages to be hilarious, dramatic and incredibly tense all at once, ending on what feels more like a cliffhanger than a conclusion.
For those not familiar with the story, it’s about a shy young woman, who meets and falls in love with a mysterious gentleman, Maxim de Winter. They marry, and he brings her home to his estate, Manderley. But the house, and its new mistress, are both haunted by the presence of Maxim’s beautiful first wife, Rebecca, who drowned a year earlier, and whose memory is kept alive by the terrifying housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.
Knee High’s production, directed by Emma Rice, has the subtitle, ‘A Study in Jealousy’ (taken from author Daphne Du Maurier’s own description of the novel). Funnily enough, I’d never really thought of the story as being about jealousy, perhaps because it’s a negative emotion and the second Mrs de Winter is such an innocent. And yet it makes perfect sense, because it’s not the house, or Rebecca, or even Mrs Danvers, who pose the ultimate threat to the heroine’s happiness, but her own feelings of inferiority, and her growing obsession with the woman whose shoes she’s trying to fill.
Imogen Sage plays the second Mrs de Winter, and captures perfectly the bewilderment of a young woman trying to fit into a brand new world. And yet she has another side to her character, which we first glimpse when she appears in her see-through lacy gown for the fancy dress ball; you feel this is a woman who will do anything to win her husband’s love, even if it means turning into the woman who came before her.
Tristan Sturrock is suitably dashing and suave as Maxim, seemingly unaware of his new wife’s isolation and insecurity, and yet all too ready to burden her with his own secrets and rely on her when the going gets tough. Meanwhile Emily Raymond’s Mrs Danvers is a forbidding figure, although perhaps slightly more sympathetic than in previous portrayals. She still does bad things, but it’s clear from the start that she’s motivated not by malice, but by insane grief.
Amidst all this intense drama, Katy Owen shines as footman Robert, bringing some much-needed light relief (the dancing, in particular, is quite a sight to behold). She also plays orphaned boy Ben, waiting patiently on the beach for his lost father; the two characters couldn’t be more different, and yet she pulls both off to perfection.
One of the things I particularly loved about this production of Rebecca was the music. Provided by the cast – who sing, dance and play instruments – it’s hauntingly beautiful, and a constant reminder of the story’s setting on the wild Cornish coast. From lively dance numbers to mournful sea shanties, it all combines perfectly to bring the tale’s surroundings to life.
Rebecca is a one-set production – and yet, what a set it is. It encompasses the sweeping staircase of Manderley, Rebecca’s cottage, her wrecked boat and the beach all at once, but it never gets confusing, although it does mean we lose a lot of the story’s introduction. Rather than opening as the newly-weds meet in Monte Carlo, we begin instead with Maxim’s sister Beatrice (Lizzie Winkler) and her husband Giles (Andy Williams) excitedly anticipating the couple’s arrival at Manderley. But those unfamiliar with the story aren’t left in the dark for long, as the script soon fills in the missing details.
I’ve seen one other stage production of Rebecca, a few years ago, which was a very straight re-telling of the story. Knee High’s version is quite different, but no less brilliant. It’s touring until 16th May and returning to Cornwall in September, and is well worth a visit if you can get your hands on a ticket.