This is not the first time Daphne Du Mauriers classic novel has been adapted for stage. The author’s own version played at the Queen’s Theatre back in 1940, boasting a fantastic cast that included Celia Johnson and Margaret Rutherford. This current version, by Frank McGuinness (whose taut hostage drama Someone Wholl Watch Over Me has just been revived at the New Ambassadors) is midway through a very successful regional tour and theres already talk of a West End transfer.
The tale told in Rebecca is a fairly simple one; Mr de Winter has lost his first wife in a drowning accident and whilst abroad he remarries, to a girl much younger than himself. The story operates from the point of view of his new wife, as she struggles to piece together the puzzle of the past. The novel is notorious for never giving this character a first name – Du Maurier herself confessed that she could not think of one and that it became a game to see if she could keep it up – however, on stage, her remaining nameless creates something of a distance between the central character and those watching, its very difficult to get under her skin.
After their marriage Maxim de Winter brings his young second wife home to his house – Manderley. Du Maurier wrote Rebecca while abroad, and the novel displays a real affection and longing for the coast and countryside of Cornwall. As a result both Manderley and Cornwall become as central to the story as any of the actors on stage.
This current production also boasts a strong cast. Nigel Havers plays Maxim de Winter with a quiet inner darkness; it takes a while for the audience to notice but it gradually becomes unnerving. Maureen Beattie plays Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper so devoted to the first Mrs de Winter, as a woman open, raw and on the edge of madness. However, it is Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh as the second Mrs de Winter is a revelation; she plays a quiet mouse-like child-woman who has to grow and stretch to become a strong loyal wife. Her character requires her to transform the most and Dermot-Walsh manages to do just that, while keeping the audiences sympathies. This is a very dark play, but Ian Barritt as Giles and Amanda Waldy as Beatrice, Maxim’s sister and brother-in-law, provide some much needed light-relief. Waldy in particular plays the hunting, shooting and fishing country woman to perfection.
The staging of this production is particularly clever; the set consists of a large video screen with a slope of stones and pebbles leading up to it, which is used to give the appearance of the cliffs, the beach and, most effectively, of molten fire. The rest of the set is kept very simple and stripped down, requiring the actors to set the scene and mood.
The problem with such a simple set is that it requires the actors to convey the dark moody atmosphere of the story – and as a result there are some slightly overly dramatic, dark and hysterical performances. While it has its strengths, audiences will undoubtedly have a mixed reaction to this production – some will be drawn into the dark world of Du Maurier while others may just find it laughable.