It was inevitable that Emma Rice would go to Manderley one day. As both a long time fan of Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier's iconic 1938 novel transposed so memorably to the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock two years later, and as joint artistic director of the Cornwall-based Kneehigh
Theatre, Rice was more than aware of the story's dramatic potential. As her production should prove as it arrives in Edinburgh tonight for a string of dates in Scotland, what might initially appear to be a commercial staple is a Rebecca like no other.
Where purists might prefer a more slavish recreation of Du Maurier's gothic noir concerning the unseen presence of Maxim de Winter's first wife who died at sea in mysterious circumstances, and the influence she has as he brings his new young bride home to his country pile, Rice takes an infinitely more playful approach. It begins with a live chorale of sea shanties performed by a chorus of fishermen who pop up through trap doors in upturned boats. There are ebullient knockabout dance routines, a crotch-sniffing puppet dog and some imagery which seems to have been poached from Kiss of the Spiderwoman.
Yet throughout all this shenanigans, the story's throbbing erotic pulse and air of menace that emanates largely through the figure of housekeeper Mrs Danvers remains in a radical reworking of the story that is neither pastiche nor old faithful.
“Rebecca has got Cornwall running through its veins,” according to Rice. “I'd been thinking of doing a Du Maurier piece onstage for some time. Every time I go for a run on the beach I think about it. Living in Cornwall you become aware of the beauty and terror of the sea, and I think Daphne du Maurier understood that from living there right up until she died. Rebecca also has some of the best female characters in literature, so it's great to look at the role of women in the story and put these dark and sexy women onstage.”
While Rice has remained faithful to Du Maurier's story and its underlying essence of suspense, she also wanted to invest it with a theatricality that a twenty-first century audience could grab hold of.
“I don't always do a script before rehearsals,” she says. “Rebecca is a big novel that needed to be condensed for a couple of hours of entertainment, and that required an awful lot of thinking about how to do it. The characters are very complex, so that was a challenge, but I always feel that you should only ever do something like that if you feel you can bring something new to it. It's like with Mrs Danvers. She was devoted to Rebecca, and I really wanted to see the damage in her and the sense of loss that you sometimes don't always see.”
This isn't the first time Rebecca has been seen onstage. Du Maurier's own dramatisation of her novel was a hit in London in 1940, with George Devine's production featuring Celia Johnson and Margaret Rutherford in the cast. It ran for 181 performances before a West End run at the Strand Theatre, where it played for another 176 nights.
With Hitchcock's film starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine appearing the same year, Rebecca captured the public's imagination in a way that saw them delight in its darkness. While the film remained faithful to the book, it presented a younger Mrs Danvers than in the original. It may have focused on Danvers' obsessive memories of her dead mistress, but any hints of a more Sapphic relationship were prohibited outright by Hollywood's moral watchdogs.
Rebecca isn't the first time Rice has taken a classic work better known from film and put it onstage. Her other productions for Kneehigh have included takes on such matinee classics as The Red Shoes, Brief Encounter and A Matter of Life and Death. Much of this fascination comes as much from Rice's own childhood experience of the films as for finding material that can retain an artistic integrity while also capturing a popular audience.
“I first saw all these films on dull and rainy Sunday afternoons when it seemed like the BBC only had about three films they could show,” Rice explains. “I think that's where my fascination with them came from, and if I'm going to try and put them onstage, it's important that they're never boring.”
Prior to the tour's Scottish dates, Rebecca will also be stopping off on home turf for a run in Cornwall. For Rice, this looks set to be an emotional occasion.
“It's going to be really important,” she says. “I think in part it will be a celebration of all things Cornish, and that means a lot to me. I first joined Kneehigh in 1994 as an actor, and I've lived and worked here ever since, so I know how powerful an image the sea can be. Obviously there's an affinity here with Du Maurier and her work, but audiences here are very open-minded.”
Rice's production of Rebecca hits the road as Rice prepares to step down from Kneehigh to becomes artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, taking over from Dominic Dromgoole in 2016. Before then, Rice has plenty to keep her occupied with Kneehigh, with a new show to stage before she moves on. In the meantime, she remains as obsessed with Rebecca as ever.
“It's a story about an innocent young girl who gets involved in a situation she doesn't understand,” she says. “It's a little bit like Bluebeard in that way. It's mood is dark, and that's probably why Hitchcock liked it. There's this beautiful innocent victim, and Hitchcock films were full of beautiful innocent victims.
“It's also a story about loss and renewal, and how we want the people we love to be good, and what happens if they're not. We've all been with someone who turns out to not be as perfect as we thought they were, but what happens if we're not as good as we think we are either?”
Rebecca, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, October 19-24; His Majesty's Theatre,
Aberdeen, October 26-31; Kings Theatre, Glasgow, November
The Herald, October 19th 2015