“Rebecca” – a contemporary take on du Maurier’s classic

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Those ephemeral words that open Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” make for, in my opinion, one of the best opening lines ever written. They allude to the dreamlike, nostalgic state that is evoked throughout “Rebecca”, an atmospheric and beautifully written novel about a young woman who is haunted by her husband’s previous marriage. As the new Mrs. de Winter adjusts to her new life on the estate of Manderley, which evokes all the shadowy grandeur of a great Gothic setting, she feels increasingly threatened by the memory of the former mistress of the house, Rebecca. The protagonist, of whose name we significantly never learn, is constantly subjected to comparisons with Rebecca and begins to feel increasingly at odds with the characters around her. The ensuing tale is one of jealousy, suspense and even terror, marked by vivid descriptions and a haunting atmosphere as Mrs. de Winter struggles to find her place as Rebecca’s successor. It has for a long time been one of my favourite novels (along with another of du Maurier’s lesser-known novels, “My Cousin Rachel”, which is another must-read for any fan of Gothic fiction), so I was thrilled to see it performed last night at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow.

Adapted by Emma Rice, this production presents a rather more modern telling of du Maurier’s classic, but still retains a certain darkness as Rice explores Mrs. de Winter’s growing paranoia and the development of her relationships with other characters such as her husband, Maxim, and the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who remains loyal to her previous mistress to the point of delusion.

The 1930s music that begins to play even before the curtain has been lifted firmly establishes the pre-war atmosphere that is evoked throughout – an atmosphere of frivolity but also one of an underlying fragility. As the scene of Manderley is illuminated from behind the screen, Rebecca’s face remains, casting her shadow over the house as she will continue to do for the entire story. The faceless character, who we soon learn was apparently lost at sea after a fatal accident, is perhaps the most significant of all, her story gradually being revealed by the actions and accounts of others.

The stage production, as the scenes change from Manderley to the beach to the midsummer ball, linked by refrains of Cornish folk music that evokes immediate links with the sea and the English region where du Maurier herself grew up, is particularly effective in bringing the story to life. The crumbling interior of the house provides a backdrop to Mrs. de Winter’s own disintegrating grasp on reality and ultimate transformation from a submissive, innocent character to something of a tyrannical ‘Rebecca’ figure herself.

Where the adaptation faltered somewhat, for me, was in the overall style of production that lost something of the drama and suspense of the novel. Rice creates a more light-hearted atmosphere, featuring dance routines and comedic character portrayals in contrast to the more sinister depictions of, for example, Mrs. Danvers. Whilst these interludes are at times genuinely funny, they become somewhat farcical and make the plot progression rather stilted, distracting from the true essence of the story, the Gothic mystery, that for me is its inherent appeal. I felt like something was missing. I wanted Mrs. Danvers’ Victorian villainy to be portrayed without demeaning it with such moments with silliness and contemporary asides; I wanted to witness Mrs. de Winter’s paranoia turn to hysteria and delusion like I imagined it to; I wanted Maxim’s melancholy to be explored to a great extent instead of be mocked by the frivolity of his company; in short, I wanted du Maurier’s novel brought to the stage as I had imagined it in my own mind.

Rice’s version both defied and challenged my expectations. As such, it deserves its own merits beyond such comparison with the original novel.  It is contemporary, funny and theatrical, presenting us with characters that engage with a modern audience against a beautiful and decadent backdrop that brings Manderley to life once again.

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