Daphne du Maurier has done a rather nifty job of adapting her own famous novel, “Rebecca,” for the stage, but even so, her efforts shortchange anyone who knows the book.
Gone, except for a short voice over at the top of Christopher Newton’s moodily Gothic production, is the interior anguish, the endless mental wrangling of the new Mrs. de Winter that gives the novel its enduring fascination and depth. And that means, though full of the brooding shadows of the genre and ultimately fun, the stage “Rebecca” is reduced to a quirky thriller.
That suits the mandate of the Shaw Festival’s mystery plays well enough, which over the years have run from J.B. Priestly and Emelyn Williams to Agatha Christie. And it’s still a good yarn even in this truncated version (in which most of the book’s major events are squeezed into a single day), and Newton has worked hard with his actors at capturing the tiny nuances of social intercourse and character that give this “Rebecca” its power.
That has led to some strong performances, particularly on the part of Severn Thomson as the young bride brought to the vast Manderley estate by the mysterious and older Maxim. Thomson manages vulnerability without nerdiness and convincingly makes the transition from terror at her own shadow to Maxim’s pillar of strength.
Peter Krantz’s Maxim does not match Thompson for fullness of characterization. In creating an enigmatic persona Krantz seems to have forgotten that he must connect with both his leading lady and his audiences, and he remains distanced, ergo also rather uninteresting.
But then there’s Sharry Flett as the malevolent Mrs. Danvers. Darkly dangerous, she signals the coming troubles in the play’s latter half with only a slight hand gesture and a stiff backbone that suggests great tumult within. When , in the final image, she flits like a crow gone wild from corner to corner putting a torch to the house, you believe that the effort of holding her emotions in check has finally taken its toll.
This ending, which Newton added, is questionable; it may pay homage to the Hitchcock film but it’s too blatant and not in keeping with the book, which suggests who the culprit was but like so much else within it, begins an image and a thought and then leaves it up to the reader to draw conclusions.
William Schmuck’s beautiful set, unquestionably one of the most ambitious creations on the tiny Royal George stage, it endeavors to re-create a “thing of grace and beauty” that becomes increasingly oppressive as the story develops. And certainly you could live in Schmuck’s great hall, with its towering fireplace, deep couches and grainy woods. But it is also too cramped and takes away from the sweeping grandeur of these great British country houses.
That aside, Elizabeth Asselstine’s lights create atmosphere and the company uses the small Royal George stage well. The support roles of Maxim’s sister Beatrice (Brigitte Robinson) and her husband Giles (Anthony Bekenn), add dimension, a sense of fun and shed some necessary light on Rebecca’s introversion, while 83-year-old Tony Van Bridge as the police inspector who almost upsets the apple cart with his questions, continues to demonstrate his gifts with minimal character and dialogue.
And for those who are curious to see how the book and the film differ from the play, or how Newton has blended du Maurier’s American version with bits of an earlier British one — along with his own imagination — this “Rebecca” will fit the bill.