Last night, I dreamt I went to one of my all time favourite novels and found it had been subject to a radical theatrical overhaul. Actually, I don’t think it was a dream, as there was a ticket stub from the Marlowe Theatre in my pocket the next morning. So for all my devotion to the sanctity of the book and the film, it is brilliant to see such a thrilling and bold reworking of du Maurier’s gothic romance. Emma Rice’s full-blooded adaptation succeeds in doing two important things: it both retains the elements that make it a much-loved classic and brings in a contemporary viewpoint which teases out many of the darker nuances of the narrative and allows the story to speak afresh to a modern audience. It is briskly told and painted with broad brushstrokes; from the arrival of the wonderfully loud, overblown, sexually liberated Bea and Giles, we’re in a dreamlike world of cartoonish vaudevillian characters. Set throughout in the burnt out ruins of Manderlay, haunted by a brooding crew of fishermen, we too are trapped inside the second Mrs de Winter’s nightmare, where the servants bustle around like an understairs version of The Crazy Gang and the suave Jack Favell becomes a crooning matinee idol. At the heart of the story are Maxim and his bride, played straight amid the lively chaos around them by Tristan Sturrock and Imogen Sage, who capture the uptight period and upper-class restraint beautifully, while delving deep into the complexities of their unlikely, awkward relationship. As the cleverly truncated story unfolds (full marks for omitting the deeply boring character, Frank Crawley), their lives become more and more fragile. Things really begin to fall apart in the beach hut, where, having seen his young wife cruelly tricked into dressing up as first wife Rebecca, in a deeply unsettling moment, Maxim too momentarily takes on Rebecca’s icy persona. Meeting him full on, his ingenue bride grows in confidence, understanding and stature; her gauche innocence is swept away on the Cornish tide and we’re left with the chilling vision that she has morphed into something resembling the dead woman – marrying into the decaying remnants of the British establishment seems like a very bad move for any woman with a sense of independence and an ounce of spirit. Also thrust into the fore is the scrappy struggle between the classes which silences the servants and allows the aristocracy to get off scot-free; as a convenient deus-ex-machina arrives to save the day, the threat of a fire burning down years of aristocratic tradition is not merely one woman’s jealous revenge, it represents a whole way of life going up in flames. There really is so much to enjoy – from Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams’ joyously ghastly snobs and the unexpected musical interludes to the almost unbearable self-consciousness of Imogen Sage’s unnamed heroine; but (apart from the dog) I will mostly remember it for making me take such a fresh look at such a familiar friend.
Have you seen the German musical of Rebecca?