Two surprising absences dominate Patrick Mason’s production of Daphne du Maurier's great novel, Rebecca, in a new adaptation by Frank McGuinness. The first and most blatant is that of any tangible presence of Manderley, the great brooding house on the Cornwall coast to which widower Maxim de Winter takes his new young bride.
Save for designer Robert Jones’ ghostly, and seemingly infinitely long, staircase occasionally glimpsed through the gauze back-cloth, it’s left to the audience to use their own imagination to bring the house to life. It’s to the large cast's credit that they succeed in helping to create both the estate’s magnificent as well as its spooky corners.
The second absence is no less surprising - and not nearly as easy to comprehend. Nigel Havers does not really bring a character to the stage as Maxim de Winter. There’s the odd bubble of temperament in the opening scene when he seduces his bride to be (Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh) away from Mrs Van Hopper (played for maximum laughs by Margaret Robertson). On the whole, however, Maxim is without any depth.
It takes a strongly spirited performance from Dermot-Walsh to make the whole production work as well as it does. She takes a woman who is, at first, frightened and over-awed by all around her to the point where she deserves to be known as plain Mrs De Winter, without the demeaning addition of an extra "second" or "new".
There is, of course, a third absence from the stage. The drowned Rebecca, de Winter’s first wife, is given substance simply by the way in which she’s constantly referred to - or not. John Nicholas as the retainer, Frith, is particularly adept at creating just the hint of allusion to keep the title character front of mind, while Gregor Henderson-Begg as the boy, Ben, finds the truth through a madman's eyes.
It’s Mrs Danvers, the devoted housekeeper, who’s left to conjure the rather more explicit embodiment of Rebecca. As she shows her new mistress around her predecessor's perfectly preserved boudoir, the room and its late occupant come increasingly into focus. Yet while Maureen Beattie clearly relishes the performance, her Danvers misses the menace, the awful sense of dread, that the role requires.
Although there’s no denying the power of Rebecca, as a story, to work its magic on the viewer, this is a production in which absence does not always succeed in making the heart grow fonder.
- Thom Dibdin (reviewed at Edinburgh’s Kings Theatre)