“Last night I
dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So begins Daphne Du Maurier’s best-selling
1938 gothic romance
Kneehigh’s Rebecca is an inspired, creative production that services Daphne Du Maurier’s original whilst also providing a new take on the classic tale, likely to appeal to fans of the novel and newcomers alike.
Cornish theatre company Kneehigh is renowned for imaginative, multimedia adaptations of classic stories. In 2008, the company produced their 1930s music hall-influenced Brief Encounter, which ingeniously intermixed film, puppetry and music with live performance. Artistic DirectorEmma Rice has reimagined Rebecca in a similar vein, creating a highly sensory production.
The show opens with the evocative sounds of waves crashing on a rocky beach, establishing a recurring motif of the sea. A chain-smoking, glamorous femme fatale then takes centre stage to speak the novel’s famous opening words.
As the dream-like mist clears and the curtain is lifted on Leslie Travers’ striking set, a mysterious corpse is lowered from the ceiling, followed by a damaged boat. The boat lands on stage, forming the centrepiece of a set which otherwise resembles the interior of a country house, albeit one with a distinctly gothic shade. The influence of the sea is omnipresent: the house is painted in greys and blues. Structurally, it is more akin to a shipwreck than a mansion.
Rice expertly balances Rebecca’s required suspense with Kneehigh’s trademark humour and heart. Imogen Sage as the second Mrs de Winter provides the emotional core of the production, beginning as waif-like ingénue before subtly conveying her characters descent into jealousy and gradual loss of innocence. Playing opposite her is Tristan Sturrock, a Kneehigh regular who smartly conveys the contrast between Maxim’s outward charm and his secret inner life. Emily Raymond plays malicious housekeeper Mrs Danvers with gothic glee.
The production provides plenty of good-natured humour to balance out the darkness: the servants, particularly Richard Clews as Frith and Katy Owen as Robert, are consistently fun, ensuring the audience remain entertained throughout. However it is Maxim’s dog Jasper, depicted via puppetry, who gains the biggest laughs of the night – and also breaks the fourth wall.
The multi-talented cast act, sing and play musical instruments, melding into the background when not needed to form a Greek chorus of Cornish fisherman, wordlessly watching the action and occasionally providing a musical accompaniment of traditional Cornish folk songs and sea shanties. The cast also ingeniously interact with the set: the epithet ‘six weeks later’ is emblazoned on a plank of wood and, later, a similar message is held up on a series of handkerchiefs.
Kneehigh’s Rebecca is an inspired, creative production that services Daphne Du Maurier’s original whilst also providing a new take on the classic tale, likely to appeal to fans of the novel and newcomers alike. While it never reaches the dizzying theatrical heights of Kneehigh’s earlier Brief Encounter, it remains a must-see, fun and entertaining piece of theatrical innovation.