It’s a Monday evening, and (not unhappily) I find myself at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury to see ‘Rebecca’ by Cornish theatre company Kneehigh. I’ve been bundled off with promises of greatness – friends from around the country sing Kneehigh’s praises, and I am happy to report that these promises were fulfilled. I spent two hours transported to another world, where the usual rules of love, jealousy, and indeed theatre do not apply.
The moment I walk into the Marlowe’s impressive main house a theatre programme is thrust into my hand, and a perfectly manicured eyebrow, arching cruelly across the forehead of the cover illustration, catches my eye. I look up to the face painted on the stage curtain, and yet again I’m greeted by that disquieting eyebrow. I feel I’m having some sort of subtle joke played on me, and this beautiful woman is enjoying it rather a lot. The scene for “a study in jealousy” is well and truly set.
From the show’s dramatic opening I am mesmerised. Featuring a cast of twelve who are rarely offstage, the telling of the poisonous influence of one woman is magnified to fable when presented by such an ensemble. Director Emma Rice’s handling of the text is deft, creating a show that is part 1930’s romp, part Greek Tragedy, combining horrifying moments of manipulation with sweetly comic interludes between Manderley’s eccentric inhabitants. Particular mention must go to Katy Owen’s sweet and charming portrayal of the footman, Robert.
Haunting musical numbers punctuate each act, somehow both familiar and foreign. These add to the sense that we’re missing some vital piece of information, that the characters we’ve strangely come to sympathise with have seen something to which we were not privy. I sense that my emotional journey is not dissimilar to that of the new Mrs de Winter, skilfully portrayed by Imogen Sage.
The real star of the show is in fact not the formidable first, nor the intriguing second wife of Maxim de Winter, but is in fact, Manderley. The set design cleverly brings together Rebecca’s watery tomb, the timeless glamour of the seaside mansion and the English coast in a way that allows the audience to fill in the blanks themselves. I enjoy and appreciate this technique, but have rarely, if ever, seen it accomplished so successfully in a set of such detail and scale.
If you know the story of ‘Rebecca’, you will enjoy this truly contemporary approach – the dramatic tension will make you writhe enjoyably in your seat. If, like me, you are yet to read du Maurier’s classic text, you have the privilege and pleasure of seeing it unfold astonishingly before your eyes.
This is a fine example of the excellent programming we’ve come to expect from The Marlowe Theatre.
Read more about the theatre’s approach in ‘High Drama’ , the main feature in the March 2015 issue of WOW magazine.