This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
The jealousy of a second wife for the first is at the core of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca. But the second Mrs de Winter standing before us at the beginning of Kneehigh’s new adaptation appears far from a victim of circumstance. Instead, she portrays the sense of having glimpsed the deepest circle of hell and come back again as, smoking sensuously, she utters those infamous opening lines ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’
This most chilling of psychological thrillers is as Cornish as sea mist, supremely suited to the Truro company’s signature fusion of spectacular setting, atmospheric retelling, rousing folk songs, puppetry and anarchic comedy. And as a body and a boat descend into the depths under the gaze of fishermen in sou’westers singing sea shanties, to be immured in the foreground of Leslie Travers’ dramatic reconstruction of Manderley and its coastal setting, we realise first wife Rebecca will be ever present, haunting the future as much as she has dominated the past.
Maxim de Winter (Tristan Sturrock) brings his new, very young wife (Imogen Sage) back to his imposing family estate after the briefest of honeymoons, telling her very little of what has gone before. Sturrock plays Maxim with just the right degree of brooding authority and anguish, while Sage in this setting is the second Mrs de Winter as we expect her to be; timid, naïve and immediately out of her depth in trying to cope with her larger than life in laws. Director Emma Rice introduces the characters of Maxim’s little sister Beatrice and her buffoonish husband Giles as a sort of representation of everyman – on the one hand chiding Maxim for his hasty marriage only eleven months after Rebecca’s death, on the other demanding that Manderley’s traditional costume ball should carry on regardless.
Far more intimidating for the new Mrs de Winter is Mrs Danvers, who runs Manderley with steely efficiency, and whose devotion to her deceased mistress is revealed with devastating consequences. Emily Raymond plays the housekeeper with formidable sternness rather than sinister edge, which can make her subtle undermining of her new mistress’s position and her reasons for wanting her to dress up for the costume ball less clear. Sudden leaps in the time-frame of this play also have a tendency to detract from the steady ratcheting up of tension, which is so much to the fore in the novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film version.
The many comic moments woven into the mix add to the non-traditional slant; Katy Owen delivers a hilarious turn as the young Welsh servant Robert, conversing a little too frankly over the newly installed telephone about the details of his mother’s menopause. Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams play Beatrice and Giles with great gusto, in danger of stealing the limelight during the ball with their Egyptian double act and Jasper the puppet dog has an amusingly unhealthy obsession with the new Mrs de Winter’s crotch.
As layer upon layer of deception is peeled away, however, the final scenes are as thrillingly climactic as in the original story and it’s refreshing to watch the new Mrs de Winter begin to take charge. This is Rebecca with a 21st Century Kneehigh twist, retaining all of the first wife’s devastating, triumphant power while also allowing the second to become a force to be reckoned with.
Reviewed at The Theatre Royal, Bath as part of a UK tour | Photo: Steve Tanner