Cornish cream of storytelling

Imogen Sage in Rebecca, Kneehigh Theatre at Lyceum, Sheffield, Nov 24-29
Imogen Sage in Rebecca, Kneehigh Theatre at Lyceum, Sheffield, Nov 24-29

In what sounds the perfect match, international touring theatre company Kneehigh Theatre have adapted one of the most popular stories set in their home county of Cornwall, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The company’s award-winning artistic director, Emma Rice, has created a stage production of the book beloved by generations and the source of a classic film by Alfred Hitchcock.

Following the mysterious death of his first wife, Maxim de Winter returns to Manderley with his new young bride.

Surrounded by memories of the glamorous Rebecca, the new Mrs De Winter sets out to uncover the secrets of the house and a past fiercely guarded by sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers and soon discovers all is not what it seems in Manderley.

Over the past 30 years Kneehigh have established a reputation for innovative and often spectacular theatre with a house style that has been applied to a number of classics such as Brief Encounter and Nights at the Circus which they have previously brought to the Sheffield Lyceum.

“I always have - and I always will - call myself a storyteller,” says Rice who is moving on to become the artistic director of the Globe on London’s South Bank. “We use a number of different elements – acting, music, film, design – to tell the story and we stitch together a great big tapestry of ideas.”

While the dark, creaking rooms and corridors of Manderley sets the mood for Rebecca, what goes on outside - the ever-changing weather, the sinister woods, the perpetual roar of the sea – is every bit as significant.

“Rebecca is elemental, almost a Greek Tragedy in the way nature is represented,” says Rice. “If you walk along the beach at Menabilly, one of the models for Manderley, you can almost reach out and touch that sense of the elemental. Daphne must have loved that spot. It’s astonishingly beautiful. Her work is a bit like Cornwall itself – beautiful but threatening as well.”

It is all the more remarkable, then, that Kneehigh’s Rebecca is played out on one set, with Leslie Travers’ design encapsulating both the house and the beach with the upturned boat in which Rebecca drowned a constant presence.

“We have moved on from the time of Rebecca’s publication in the 1930s,” continues the director. “We’re in a different century after all, so changes needed to be made. However, I am never disrespectful. I love this period.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the book is that it cannot be pigeon-holed into any particular category. It is a gripping whodunit and a social satire, a ghost story as well as a critique of the position of women in pre-war Britain.

Above all, says Rice, referring to the production’s sub-title, it is ‘a study in jealousy.’

“According to her son Kits, it used to drive his mother mad when she heard Rebecca described as a ‘romance’. She insisted, and this is a direct quote, that it was ‘a study in jealousy’.”