Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier
Adapted by Emma Rice
From Kneehigh Theatre
Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Rebecca is timeless; the book is beloved by generations and the iconic Alfred Hitchcock film is a classic of the genre. Following the mysterious death of his first wife, Maxim de Winter returns to Manderley with his new young bride. Surrounded by memories of the glamorous Rebecca, the new Mrs De Winter is consumed by jealousy. She sets out to uncover the secrets of the house and a past fiercely guarded by the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers. All is not what it seems in Manderley.
“A study in jealousy” reads the tagline for the novel, and indeed it is that. Any production of Rebecca relies heavily on setting the right atmosphere for the story to succeed on the stage where words and long descriptive sentences are no longer present. Kneehigh’s production has glimmers of something quite special; the set design, with its dilapidated house merging into the shore, is striking and quite marvellous designed and the background music is effective at bringing out the Cornish setting in which the novel takes place, but the production becomes a little too forced and self indulgent to be effective.
Emma Rice’s adaptation and direction distracts from the story, and is the major stumbling block. Too often does it seem the production is trying to be abstract for the sake of being abstract, and often plays for cheap laughs which diminishes the artistic value of the work the actors are doing. Windows and branches are dangled in the faces of the actors, and clever as some of this to set the scene, is it becomes a real nuisance as it is repeated: we are never allowed to fully become absorbed in the storytelling. The production is clearly set in the 1930s (true to the novel), apparent from the Charleston and Astaire and Rogers references, but some of the language and behaviour of the characters is much more contemporary – this leaves the audience confused, and sincerity in some of the characters is difficult to find. Very Brechtian in ways, but there is no clear social message being presented, by the end you feel no empathetic connection to any of the characters.
There is some fine acting work being presented through the smoke and mirrors. Imogen Sage commands the stage beautifully as Mrs de Winter, she brings out the all the naivety that you would expect. There is something of a Carey Mulligan-esque gravitas to her work, her face and mannerisms suiting period work quite naturally. She handles the characters transformation well, although perhaps a little too briskly – the more mature version of the character we see does seem slightly too contemporary. Tristan Sturrock gives us a cold Maxim de Winter, his brooding nature present throughout as it should be. Although his later scenes are perhaps a tad too melodramatic .
Katy Owen is a real stand-out with some strong, polished character work as Robert and Ben. She is the main comic relief of the piece, and gets the laughs for her tireless work. She certainly takes some liberties with the characters, but her acting choices are inventive and appropriate – however she is allowed on a few too many occasions to draw away from the plot, and the story suffers because of some of the gags employed. This should have been reigned in by the director. Emily Raymond is simply too young for the role of Mrs Danvers, she lacks the grounded menace the age brings to the character.
Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams bring quite garish characters to the table as husband and wife, Beatrice and Giles. The rapport between the two is effective, and Winkler brings out some of the daring behaviour that was starting to emerge in the 1930s era – but again, the direction of the characterisation seems too much for the atmosphere the production is trying to create.
There is a distinct feeling that this production is not really sure what it wants to be, or the vision has become lost somewhere in the process. You have to be mightily careful with adaptations of novels, particularly ones so well loved. This production simply does not do the novel justice, and in some ways is I’m afraid to say it could be viewed demeaning. Undoubtedly some clever ideas and good work, but the piece doesn’t tie together as a whole – A distracting mismatch of ideas.