Rebecca: Kneehigh Theatre

Last night I dreamt I went to The Lowry again. Wait… no, I actually did. It was to see Rebecca, Kneehigh Theatre’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s famous novel. Published in 1938, Rebecca tells the story of an innocent young woman who marries an older man, Maxim de Winter, following a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo. They return to live at Manderley, his ancestral family home in Cornwall, but the memory of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, lingers on in the household and the heroine is soon overwhelmed by fear and jealousy. This was one of my favourite books as a teenager – hell, it still is – yet I’d never seen it as a piece of theatre before.

Kneehigh’s production begins with the iconic opening lines (‘last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ etc), uttered by a flamboyantly glamorous woman smoking a cigarette. The woman’s identity is intriguingly unclear – she seems more like Rebecca, yet the lines belong to the heroine. (Du Maurier’s decision not to name her narrator-protagonist is a fascinating one I could probably write an entire blog post on – but I won’t. And for the sake of clarity, during this review I will refer to her as N.) Once N/Rebecca has spoken, a mannequin is lowered on strings into a deep hole centre stage. This is followed by a solid rowing boat, which – once lowered – slots into the hole and covers the body, becoming part of the set. This sequence cleverly foreshadows the circumstances of Rebecca’s death, and watching the characters walk unknowingly over the boat is a dark reminder of Rebecca’s continual presence.

As you can probably gather from just this detail, Kneehigh’s set design is incredible. A balcony in the top right connected to a set of stairs provides the perfect platform for N’s disastrous appearance at the fancy dress ball. A narrow plank walkway connects these stairs to a second flight, forming a long walkway across the stage – these planks later double as signs when removed and held up to the audience. The whole set has a suitably Gothic, dilapidated look about it, with peeling wallpaper, odd items of antique furniture and dimly glowing lights. There are no clear, physical boundaries – windows and doors pop up comically, held by servants – and scenes flow rapidly into each other, both of which blur the lines between Manderley’s interior and the wild dangers of the coastal exterior.

Kneehigh’s cast are an undeniably hardworking bunch, navigating an obstacle course of a set and turning their hands to singing, dancing and puppetry. Yes, Maxim’s loyal dog Jasper is brought to life in puppet form, fulfilling his role in the story by leading N to Rebecca’s beach cottage and providing some comic relief by being cute. (Have you ever seen a dog puppet mess with someone by offering them its paw and then snatching it away? It’s pretty funny.) Unfortunately, the attempt to inject further comic relief into the play by expanding the role of Robert the footman is unsuccessful. In the book, his only purpose is to be temporarily blamed for breaking an ornament until N is forced to admit it was her – but this production sees a young servant with a heavy Welsh accent (in Cornwall??) insisting on answering the telephone, saying ‘I love you’ to everyone and telling people about his menopausal mother. It’s completely at odds with the rest of the action and isn’t particularly funny. Emily Raymond’s Mrs Danvers is initially unsubtle as a brick, rudely telling N that she’s out of her depth, instead of undermining her with insinuations and psychological tricks. Even as subtlety is abandoned and she encourages N to kill herself, Raymond lacks the menace that makes Mrs Danvers so terrifying. Tristan Sturrock’s Maxim pays more attention to his dog than his wife, keeping himself at a safe physical distance and often treating her with cold disdain. (Honestly, what does she see in him?) N herself – played by Imogen Sage – is stiff, nervous and pitiably innocent. That is, until Maxim confesses to murdering Rebecca and she is forced to take charge of the situation. In the book, this sees N not just face Maxim’s inquest, but throw off Rebecca’s influence and confidently embrace her role as mistress of the house. However, Kneehigh choose a distinctly less subtle approach. As Maxim confesses, N removes her dress, lights a cigarette and lays down on some cushions with her slip pulled up and her legs open. Unable to resist his suddenly seductive wife (even though in both book and play he frequently bemoans the lost look of innocence in her eyes), Maxim joins her on the floor and they make love. Apparently, murder is a real aphrodisiac…

This is just one of the places where I feel that Kneehigh fall down, adaptation-wise. The play’s action starts at Manderley, omitting the entire section at Monte Carlo where N and Maxim meet. Not only does this deprive the audience of meeting N’s hilariously vile employer, Mrs Van Hopper, it also means that we don’t see the romance of their early relationship, the hints of a ‘happy ending’ shot through with dark foreboding. Some of the text is recycled in later scenes, but without witnessing N falling in love with Maxim he seems to have few redeeming features. Later on, Mrs Danvers gives N a dress to wear for the ball on the day… Is it just me, or would a woman as desperate to impress and generally lacking in things to do as N leave the task of picking an outfit to mere hours before the event? And would she be stupid enough to trust someone who has made no secret of her dislike to provide said outfit? The answer is apparently yes, so the portrait element of the story is removed and N appears wearing Rebecca’s actual dress. Thank heavens she’s exactly the right size. Maxim’s inquest in London is replaced by a makeshift trial on the beach itself, with characters popping up in contrived fashion to accuse and then save him. The entirety of the action is interspersed with sea shanty-like songs and music played live onstage, which creates a beautiful atmosphere but ultimately becomes a little wearing. Particularly as so much material has been cut or altered, apparently at their expense. Rebecca famously concludes with the fire which destroys Manderley – here, the cast assemble onstage bearing burning torches and Mrs Danvers shouts du Maurier’s final line like a curse: ‘and the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.’ Chilling and full of impact, yes, but I’m not sure how clear it is that the house is burning down.

Overall, this production of Rebecca is a lot like the eponymous anti-heroine herself: beautiful, clever, slick – but lacking in depth and faithfulness to the original text in some critical places. Nonetheless, I’d definitely love to see Kneehigh Theatre again in future.

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