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Rebecca/Theatre Royal Brighton

To dramatise on stage a fine novel and film is never going to be easy and Emma Rice’s production is a brave but flawed attempt. I went with Alice Mansfield, an authority on Daphne du Maurier, who wondered beforehand how a play necessarily finite and constrained to the proscenium would cope with the highly visual changes of scenery: the sylvan, troubling atmosphere of Manderlay, the coroner ‘s courtroom at Par, the opening scene in Monte Carlo, the boathouse on the cove. The solution was apparent when the play opened. The scene contained a rowing boat to convey the cove and armchairs to portray the interior of Manderlay. There was the odd artifice of servants carrying windows to further the impression of the main house. It was messy and did not work.

There was enough music in the form of  Cornish sea shanties and a three piece band for the play to be a musical. The footman and boy retard were played in comic style by a woman (Katy Owen). This was a feminist production accentuating the two females roles Mrs Danvers (Emily Raymond) and Mrs de Winter (Imogen Sage) but the skill of the novel  is that that  you never see physically the most powerful presence of Rebecca who still casts her shadow over the story.

Perhaps a traditional faithful production would only invite comparison to Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, her first major role, and galaxy of talented actors in the minor roles: George Sanders as the cad, Nigel Bruce as the buffoon brother-in-law, most of all Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), sinister, dark and glacial but always respecting the barriers of the mistress/servant relationship. This Mrs Danvers was far more expressive, less class conscious and more or less admitted she had a sexual relationship with Rebecca. One of the skills of the novel and film is subtly to leave this unsaid. Mrs de Winter, she is never given a first name, emerged as a much stronger character than in the novel where she is timid. In the famous scene where she is tricked into wearing Rebecca’s ball gown she arrives in a see-through fishnet body stocking acquired perhaps at Ann Summers not from the theatre wardrobe. At the end she punches her fist into the air and repeats the first line “Last night I dreamt of Manderlay.”

Of the cast  I liked TristanThurrock as Maxim de Winter best. There will never be another Olivier but he had that inner cruelty inside the patrician Lord of the Manor. Andy Williams did better as the coastguard conducting an investigation, an invention to get round the coroner court scene, than in his other role as Giles the boozy brother in law. Katy Owen got on my nerves as the servant .

I asked Alice whether Daphne du Maurier would have liked the production. Alice replied that Daphne du Maurier took exception to Antonia Fraser rewriting a short story based on the future marriage  of the de Winters so she did not like tinkering. She would have approved of the Cornish back drop, the sea shanties and coastguards though.

One of the benefits of attendimg live theatre – to participate in the Great Rust debate – is you glean audience reaction. Whilst I queued at the small bar for seemingly ages in the interval the guy behind me was pontificating  on the play. He thought it was a parody. I am not sure I agree: more like a feminist reworking. There was a full house and at the final curtain rousing clapping and appreciation. It has been playing around the country. Du Maurier still appeals to younger generations some 110 years after her birth and 80 years after Rebecca was written. Somehow her skill as a  story teller does survive the dramatic licence – the twist at the end is faithful to the book whereas the film which carried another softer landing for Hollywood.  It was rather like those endless productions of Shakespeare in different period costume when the plot and poetry of the lines redeem it. I should not be too harsh and leave the final word to Alice who said as you could not ever better the novel or film why not try a wholly different interpretation for the stage?

About Tim Holford-Smith

Despite running his architectural practice full-time, Tim is a frequent theatre-goer and occasional am-dram producer. More Posts