Kneehigh Theatre's Rebecca

6 November 2015



Last night I didn't dream I went to Manderley again, I actually did. I toddled off to the King's Theatre Glasgow to see Kneehigh Theatre's production of Daphne Du Maurier's infamous Rebecca.

I had seen the play a few years ago and adored it - it was a very straight production and I remember loving the intense atmosphere. When the press release for this production landed on my inbox I was incredibly excited, Rebecca was one of the mod stand-out theatre experiences I'd ever have, and I went along expecting something similar. I was very, very wrong. Not that it wasn't a stand out theatre experience, but it was definitely not a straight production.

Rather than a straight production this included War Horse like puppetry (the dog), actors on stage visibly producing the music when they weren't involved directly in the scene - and one of the most incredible sets.

The set remained the same throughout and was, as you can see in the above photo, a suggestion of the interior of Manderley, a beach and a cottage all at once. At the play's opening a boat descends, with a lifeless body hanging below it. With this I felt a massive surge of excitement - here was the dead Rebecca, entering the stage already, to stay there, unseen but onstage, beneath the boat throughout the entire production. Flooring was put down and arranged over the boat so that it was sometimes hidden for the purposes of the scene, but you'd seen that body and you knew it was there. Rebecca wasn't just a haunting memory - she was physically taking up the space on stage too. As the second Mrs de Winter half climbs and half dances through the stage to come forward and utter that iconic first line she does so to a soundtrack that we cannot be quite sure isn't the breath of the ghost of the body we've just seen lowered, or just the wind. 

It was all very atmospheric and I was settled in for a serious nail biting, tension filled piece. Which never quite came.

Kneehigh chose to bring humour into their production of Rebecca - partly through the puppet dog (the puppeteer kicked to make the tag wag - to wild laughter from the audience), partly through Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams' fantastic turns as Maxim's sister Bea and her husband Giles but mostly through the phenomenal Katy Owen - who plays both Robert and Ben to tears rolling down the cheeks levels of comedy. She's an absolute five star performer and I really hope to be treated to many more of her performances. 

What all the actors did they did incredibly well; but for me the comedy didn't heighten the tension by contrasting it, it sort of dulled it. Especially in the first half. I'm still not 100% sure if this was a good or bad thing. but it certainly wasn't what I was expecting from a production of Rebecca. 

Where I 100% think this lighter injection into the story really didn't work was Emily Raymond, playing Mrs Danvers, joining in a dance with some of the other cast portraying servants at the opening of act 2. Whilst I could have accepted the dance itself, I felt Raymond wasn't well cast as Danvers to begin with - not through any fault of hers as everything she did was great, but she just wasn't old enough for the part (or maybe she just had great skin!) and I didn't at any point feel intimidated or scared by her. Whilst I think the comedy introduced in other areas was interesting and experimental - always to be encouraged in theatre - I did feel that Mrs Danvers should have been more of a force to be reckoned with than she came across as, and that I think was linked to those comedic and light hearted turns.

Imogen Sage as the second Mrs de Winters is another fantastic performance - her transformation from the young, naive and 'it's obvious you don't give a hoot what you wear' girl we are faced with to the formidable lady we leave on is entirely believable and totally well balanced by the actress. Emma Rice, the director said in an interview:

"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."

This really comes through to me in the second Mrs de Winter's transformation, where she wears Rebecca's discarded robe and tells her husband what to do. By the end she's not just a little more confident or self assured - she's absolutely in the driving seat and I got the distinct impression she'd near enough morphed into Rebecca.

Which may seem strange as often Max is painted as the sympathetic character and Rebecca as the villain. Again Rice argues:


"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. ... Max deliberately gets himself a very young wife who is not going to challenge him in the way that Rebecca did. He wants life to be simple again. We talked a lot in rehearsal about Mrs de Winter’s lack of a name... 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."

She then continues on...

“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."

There's a sympathy in this production with Rebecca - and I think that explains the morphing of the second Mrs de Winter - she if almost forced by Max and the entire situation into the role. Perhaps Rebecca herself was made and not born? This sympathy also might explain why I didn't find Mrs Danvers quite as intimidating as I expected to - maybe she was just a woman who was genuinely devoted to a perfectly nice person. But then, Mrs Danvers is the one who states Rebecca never loved anyone...

All in all this production challenged me and the perception I have of Rebecca. Whilst I would say the production had slightly weaker elements, it had many very strong ones and I am exceptionally glad I've seen it. If you've read my rambles on art and thinking vs feeling here, you'll know that I'ma fan of being made to think - so I'll end this review here with another quote from Rice. 

"There need to be more roles for women that defy the usual archetypes. Rebecca challenges us from the grave with her lack of care for society's rules. she lived and died as she wished and was independent and able. We are often threatened as a society by women that are not willing to be categorised or silenced, but I am inspired. Rebecca stands for many of the things I wish I could be - free, fierce and smart. I celebrate all the wonderful female characters in Rebecca, from the passionate and loyal Mrs Danvers to the new mrs de Winter, who wakes from her fairy-tale slumber in front of our very eyes. These are the women who I want to inhabit, whose stories I want to tell."

If you're going to be disappointed by a Rebecca that isn't the Hitchcock version or an exact replica of the book, then skip this one, if you're open to theatre that is experimental, different and a little bit challenging - this one ticks all the boxes.

See the tour dates and get tickets here. Running in Glasgow till Saturday. 

(On a side note Emma Rice is soon to transfer to the RSC and given my dissertation was all about Shakespeare's portrayal of women, I'm fairly interested to see what she does with that!)


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