Ahead of worldwide acclaimed Kneehigh Theatre bringing us their stunning new production Rebecca from Monday 30 March – Saturday 4 April, we found out more as Al Senter spoke to the company’s Artistic Director, Emma Rice
When you think about it, it was surely only a matter of time before two such formidable women, both with deep-rooted associations with Cornwall, should have joined forces. Therefore it comes as no surprise to learn that Emma Rice, Kneehigh’s Artistic Director, had been planning a new show, based on one of the works of Daphne du Maurier, the author of the immortal Rebecca.
“I’d been thinking about Daphne du Maurier for some time,” she reveals. “Daphne and Kneehigh share a Cornish connection and it felt that a piece based on one of her writings was long overdue. I’d been looking at the short stories when producer David Pugh offered me the perfect apple. “How about doing Rebecca?” he suggested and I nearly leapt off my seat in excitement.”
Nature in all its moods is a constant theme in Rebecca; the ever-changing weather, the sinister woods that flank the driveway to Manderley, the perpetual roar of the sea.
“Rebecca is elemental, almost a Greek Tragedy in the way Nature is represented,” says Emma. “If you walk along the beach at Menabilly, one of the models for Manderley, you can almost reach out and touch that sense of the elemental. Daphne must have loved that spot. It’s astonishingly beautiful. Her work is a bit like Cornwall itself – beautiful but threatening as well.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Rebecca, first published in 1938 and still a bestseller, is the book’s refusal to be pigeon-holed in one genre or another. It’s a gripping whodunit and a social satire, a ghost story as well as a critique of the position of women in twentieth century Britain. Above all, says Emma, pointing to this production’s sub-title, it is “a study in jealousy” Daphne was characteristically sure of what Rebecca is and what it isn’t.
“According to her son Kits, it used to drive his mother mad when she heard Rebecca described as a “romance”. She insisted, and this is a direct quote, that it was “a study in jealousy”.
There is also something of a fairy tale in the way that the second Mrs de Winter is whisked away from her tyrannical employer to become the mistress of Manderley.
“It’s Cinderella meets Bluebeard,” says Emma with a smile. “But this Cinderella feels that she is not good enough to be the new Mrs de Winter and what woman has never felt the same?”
Rebecca’s status as a classic, read and re-read by millions of devotees around the world, might make the task of adapting it something of a poisoned chalice. But Emma is undaunted.
“I’d argue that people think they know the novel when in fact what they remember is Mrs Danvers the housekeeper and the scene at the Manderley Ball. I felt that the Third Act of the book needed a theatrical overhaul. We have followed the second Mrs de Winter throughout the narrative, only for all those blokes to take over at the end and relegate her to the side-lines.
Working on the show has been fun and straightforward and the du Maurier estate has been hugely supportive. We have moved on from the time of Rebecca’s publication in the 1930s: we’re in a different century after all, so changes needed to be made.
However, I am never disrespectful. I love this period. It’s a bit of history which you can reach out and touch and I feel the link to the 1930s and 1940s very strongly. It is a time of great foreboding, a feeling of unease which you can sense in Rebecca. It was published a year before we went to war and I find the era very evocative. I’m also rather fond of the stiff upper lip. People were like icebergs with such a lot kept below the surface and a tension generated by what was implied rather than spoken.”
Kneehigh’s many fans will know the company’s house style, a style that has been applied over the years to a number of classic narratives. How would Emma describe the company’s trademark to a Kneehigh newcomer?
“I always have – and I always will – call myself a storyteller,” she replies. “We use a number of different elements; acting, music, film, design to tell the story and we stitch together a great big tapestry of ideas. Audiences coming to Rebecca will see a recognisable 1938 world but with something of a twist.
Those experiencing Rebecca via Hitchcock’s 1939 film version may be surprised. The movie is confusing because Hollywood couldn’t stomach the idea that the leading man might also be a murderer. When I went back to the book, I was astounded by its detail and complexity. It is also a gripping read.”
On the surface Maxim de Winter would appear to be the romantic hero par excellence, a Prince Charming on the cusp of distinguished middle age. But Emma has been busy probing beneath that elegant veneer.
“Max deliberately gets himself a very young wife who is not going to challenge him in the way that Rebecca did, “explains Emma. “He wants life to be simple again. We talked a lot in rehearsal about Mrs de Winter’s lack of a name. Daphne teasingly says that it was given to her by the father and that it is hard to pronounce. I sense that it might be something botanical – like Floribunda. However, I think that it’s really important that we don’t know her name and that we don’t get on intimate terms with her. In a way, to know her name is to know her.”
Both Rebecca – and to an extent the second Mrs de Winter – fall into a pattern of behaviour which Emma argues has been a common theme in both fact and fiction.
“Why is it that so many female beauties; Ophelia, Carmen, Princess Di, Marilyn Monroe who have attracted the male gaze, have also ended up dead? We seem fascinated by the idea of the female victim. We never see Rebecca and all we know about her is what we hear from other people and I’d take what Max says about her with a large pinch of salt. I’m inclined to judge Max quite harshly: he represents a privileged class who feel they’re above the law.”
What kind of a future does Emma predict for the de Winters?
“They remind me of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, living quietly in exile. To an extent, their roles have been reversed. She is looking after him now. I think she’s destined to have a quiet death, the quiet little woman who can’t quite keep silent.”
Rebecca is at The Marlowe Theatre from Monday 30 March – Saturday 4 April.