We caught up with Emma Rice, Director of Kneehigh Productions on her latest piece: Rebecca the play. Adapting one of Britain’s most loved novels for a theatrical performance that is faithful to text whilst appealing to contemporary audiences is certainly a daunting task, but one that Emma executes with panache. Her version of Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece captures all the darkness of Maxim’s heart alongside intricate choreography, infectious energy and moments of hilarity. We thoroughly enjoyed this production and were delighted to speak to Emma about her creative direction, tips for emerging artists and not being scared when starting out in the Arts. Rebecca the play is touring now.
The London Magazine interview with Emma Rice
You’ve got a really impressive collection of awards for your directing and a range of successful productions, so thank you for speaking to us today. I was curious why Kneehigh productions have decided on Rebecca and why now? Were you influenced by the Cornwall origins of your production company and the connection that has to du Maurier?
Yes well I think it was long overdue and I’ve been thinking about Daphne du Maurier for a while now. I was investigating short stories which were pretty amazing. Then David Pugh the producer said “How about Rebecca?” And I just couldn’t turn it down. It’s fantastic it feels like it’s sort of a dream waiting to happen. So it feel into my lap really but as I say, Daphne du Maurier is a Cornish female legend and so I’ve been waiting to work with her for ages.
Did you feel pressure to stay truthful to the text or were you happy to shape the story in your own direction?
Well it’s impossible to stay true to the text because she wrote a fantastic great big novel and I need to get it into two hours of exciting theatre. So I went into it feeling it’s a completely different art form. But I asked myself what is the actuality and what can I bring into it. People can read the book at any time and watch the Hitchcock film at any time, but I wanted to bring something fresh. What I’ve really done, I think, is I’ve given the second Mrs de Winter a big character role. There’s some surprises in what she becomes in my production which I think the book is lacking a little bit. And I’ve also really revamped the third act as I call it which is “the trial”, you know in the book it’s all so exciting isn’t it? Sort of gripping and then suddenly an anti-climax deciding what’s going to happen. I thought forget that. I’m going to make this more interesting. I don’t want to do any spoilers but everything in my production takes place either at Manderley or on the beach below Manderley so it’s very elemental and it’s very theatrical.
What would you say were the main practical challenges in bringing this story to the stage and were you influenced by the Hitchcock film of Rebecca?
I’m quite an action based physical director and yet mostly the novel is psychological. So I think that has been a fantastic challenge for me; to build the tension with the characters and show the pressures that they are under. To really get that. I have been inspired by Hitchcock all my life really; the master of suspense, and so that’s the first time that I’ve been able to put that into practice with theatre. It is so interesting I mean it’s really not about what happens, it’s about what people feel and what people provoke in each other.
As Rebecca is such a dark and mysterious story would you say that this is the perfect combination for a theatrical and dramatic adaptation? Are these the perfect elements for a fantastic stage drama?
Yes. I’m biased obviously as I’m in love with it and working on it at the moment, but I would say the only thing I kind of miss is that it’s not very romantic. People have called it a romantic novel and I would say that there’s not a single bit of romance in the whole book and I wish there were a little bit more. But actually that’s where the tension lies, this sort of desire for love and it not really being there.
It is strange how people have romanticised the plot so extensively. How would you say that the story of Rebecca interests you on a personal level?
Well I think I’m always interested by the dynamics of personal relationships and this is very extreme. It’s also very feminist, you know Rebecca herself who obviously never appears. I’m jealous of Rebecca. Not only was she beautiful but she maintained her own boat and she rode horses. She really was this exceptional creature and I subtitled it with what Daphne du Maurier described Rebeca as, a study in jealousy. I think what’s amazing is to watch a very likable young women who had stepped into the shadow of an incredibly able woman. And to look at what that man wants from her. Maxim is looking for a woman who isn’t going to challenge him in the way that Rebecca did and isn’t going to have personal freedom in the way that Rebecca did. I think I’ve given him a little bit more comeuppance than any other version has.
It’s amazing how Mrs De Winter can become such a huge character despite Rebecca’s presence pervading and enduring in the land and the house. Just like the moors are a powerful force in Wuthering Heights.
Well that’s a brilliant thing to say actually because Rebecca is as big as the moors and in this production she is the sea. I mean she lies in the bottom of the sea and the sea is what gives justice at the end so it’s a great analogy.
What advice would you give to young writers starting out looking at directing or textual adaptations?
Keep it simple! Don’t be frightened because what’s the worst that can happen? You make a show that isn’t that great? Ultimately choose something that you are passionate about and keep asking simple questions; like what’s exciting? What do I care about? The rest will work out itself.
By Tara Flynn