Novel by Daphne du Maurier, adaptation by Emma Rice
Kneehigh Theatre Company
Sheffield Lyceum

Imogen Sage Credit: Steve Tanner
Imogen Sage and Tristan Sturrock Credit: Steve Tanner

An audience familiar with Daphne du Maurier’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 dark and melodramatic film will find Emma Rice’s adaptation of Rebecca an unusual and alternative take on the original in the best tradition of Kneehigh Theatre’s startling and original work.

The main plot is clearly and effectively presented. Maxim de Winter returns to Manderlay with his young, unconfident bride. She finds her efforts to establish herself threatened by daunting and hostile Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, who worshipped the first Mrs de Winter and does all she can to undermine and humiliate the newcomer.

More disconcerting is the gradual realisation that Rebecca is still a dominating presence in the household who reaches out from her watery grave with a destructive power that is barely stoppable.

Emma Rice has written a stage adaptation for the 21st century. Asked if she thought it was important to be faithful to the original, she replied, "faithful, yes. Enslaved, no." Consequently, her protagonist is much feistier than the earlier models and, like an archetypal heroine in a folk tale, "wakes from her fairy-tale slumber in front of our very eyes" and finds the strength to save the day.

The originality of Rice’s adaptation extends to a secondary group of comic characters and entertainers who bring a different set of resonances to the performance.

The songs of the musicians link us to the Cornish coast and its wild seas, providing a "mythical element" which relates to the mysterious circumstances of Rebecca’s death.

More unexpected are the comedic aspects of the production. Lizzie Winkler as Maxim’s sister Beatrice gives an outrageously dynamic performance of period song and dance routines and Katy Owen is hilarious as the servant Robert with her over-stated Welsh accent, pantomimic relationship with the audience and entertaining physicality.

This initially takes some adjusting to in an essentially melodramatic play but on reflection is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s use of comedy in tragic works.

Robert fulfils the function of the Fool in Lear, providing respite from the darkness of the tragedy, and incidentally giving the scenes of anguish much greater significance through contrast.

Designer Leslie Travers has created a complicated and clever set, full of levels and stairs, which accommodates the multiple settings of the plot and contributes to the dynamism of the performance. Key moments like Mrs de Winter’s appearance at the head of a staircase wearing Rebecca’s voluptuous dress are particularly effective.

As always with Kneehigh, this is an ensemble performance, but much credit must go to the actors in the principal roles. Tristan Sturrock, a regular performer with the company, is an effective, emotionally conflicted Maxim.

At an early stage in her career, Imogen Sage is a perfect choice for Mrs de Winter, uncertain and innocent in the early scenes but gradually gaining courage and authority as the action develops.

Emily Raymond is a chilling Mrs Danvers: severe, unsmiling, manipulative, dressed in black, the epitome of the wicked queen from folk tales.

There is strong support from the whole cast, whether in secondary roles or as musicians and dancers. An added pleasure is the animation of the bird puppets and the manipulation of the dog, whose movement is carefully observed and recognisably true to life.

This is a most unusual and absorbing interpretation of du Maurier’s novel, in which added dimensions have been achieved through allusion to archetypal and mythical elements, its grounding in the musical tradition of Cornwall and the use of comedy in a serious play.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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