Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, adapted by Emma Rice
Lee Farley writes for The Observer
Cornwall’s Kneehigh have chosen the classic Cornish tale of jealousy, secrets and the tempestuous sea for their latest touring show. If you’ve seen Kneehigh before you know what to expect here – plenty of music to soundtrack the action, vibrant performances, comedy, puppetry, dance routines and effective set-piece moments.
The set deserves an early mention – the crumbling mansion of Manderley is merged with the rugged Cornish coastline to provide levels and layers for the action. We are in a volatile environment where danger lurks at every turn. The production uses lighting effects, smoky fog effects and sound to create atmosphere and tension – there’s an almost permanent soundscape created live in addition to numerous folky songs. Kneehigh are in their element here, all their productions I’ve seen are colourful and vibrant and the songs are performed with energy and skill. The apparent incompatibility of upbeat song and dance routines in a story which is so serious and dark reveals plenty about why the production doesn’t quite work for me. There’s a tendency to throw theatrical style over the emotional substance of the story.
The cast are faultless – Kneehigh’s trademark over-the-top comic performances are in your face early on in the proceedings, with Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams hamming it up as Maxim De Winter’s sister & brother-in-law, sharply contrasting with the introduction of Tristan Sturrock, the enigmatic and sincere master of the house, and his new, young bride – a complex & compelling performance from Imogen Sage who manages Mrs De Winter’s journey from naivety to ruthlessness with skill and charm.
The rolling fog, the fishermen’s dark sou’westers and the sea shanties summon up monsters from the deep as secrets are revealed and accusations are made against Mr De Winter, building to a melodramatic climax with flaming torches and more special lighting effects. You can’t fault Kneehigh for effort and if you like your theatre with constant music, slick West End-style technical spectacle and comedy crotch-sniffing puppet dogs, Rebecca is a triumph. I couldn’t help wishing for a bit more substance to add to the style, though. The set-pieces are an unnecessary distraction from the characters and themes and the permanent soundtrack is a cinematic device, not a theatrical one. Director Emma Rice has neglected some crucial aspects of the production which could have subtly created tension, intrigue and drama without the aid of soundtracks and flashy ostentation.
An effective theatrical re-telling of a dramatic Gothic classic which relies too heavily on Kneehigh’s familiar circus-style storytelling to create its atmosphere and consequently fails to engage on a human, emotional level.