Daphne du Maurier, adapted by Frank McGuinness
King's Theatre, Edinburgh, and touring
A curious combination of modern technology and traditional acting make this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's suspense thriller an altogether odd performance. The literal adaptation is exactly like the book - which was written some forty years ago. Yet the domineering set design is such a stark contrast to the realistic acting and period costumes that it conjures the image of a concrete slab wrapped in lace.
When a naïve and somewhat plain young woman marries a rich widower, they return from their honeymoon to settle in his mansion. She discovers that the memory of his previous wife, Rebecca, has a strange hold over the place and her new husband becomes brooding and over-burdened. She is mentally dominated by the presence of the dead woman, and is tormented by Rebecca's menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who resents the young bride to the point of malice. It's a sombre atmospheric tale of jealousy and tension with a slow pace and a dark climax.
Maureen Beattie plays the sinister Mrs. Danvers. Her piercing eyes and stern expression make her look the part but she lacks the eerie, terrifying presence that chills the young heroine, played by Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh, whose presence is mousy, plain and everything that the new Mrs. de Winter is said to be. Perhaps a narrator so unimaginative works better in closer circumstances, such as a film or a novel. However, on stage it has lacks the impact needed to draw an audience in.
But fans of Nigel Havers will not be disappointed. He carries the show with his superb portrayal of Maxim de Winter and commands respect whenever he is on stage. His switch in character from happy-go-lucky suitor to brooding husband is faultless. The rest of the cast perform well but the setting is where the show falls down. It lacks diversity, which makes this slow moving story drag on relentlessly.
The set is a simplistic structure - part projection screen, part rocky base - and it towers over the stage throughout the performance, looming above the actors. To begin with it's used as a projection screen, but for the most part it is used for lighting effects which shine ghostly on its white expanse. It makes the stage cold and bare, which in some instances works well, but for the most part it is dull, bland and unchanging. There are a few very clever lighting effects but there certainty aren't so many as to warrant such an overbearing structure. Its purpose becomes apparent during the finale but by then it hardly seems worth it.
Those who have read the book will know the wondrous imagery that springs to mind at the thought of Manderley - and perhaps this is why so abstract a choice of set was chosen - but to not show the lavish décor of the house that captivated the heart of the new Mrs. de Winter seems like an opportunity missed. The house itself plays such a vital role in the novel that its absence in this play leaves a gaping hole.
Reviewer: Georgina Merry