Kneehigh present the perfect Cornish gothic tale

Kneehigh's latest production is Emma Rice's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca. Picture: Steve Tanner
Kneehigh's latest production is Emma Rice's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca. Picture: Steve Tanner
  • It’s taken them a while but Kneehigh are now tackling Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad reports.
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For the longest time, Leeds was the Yorkshire home of Kneehigh Theatre Company.

A few years ago the rest of the UK caught up with the fact that Kneehigh is a very special company and started booking its shows for their theatres from London to Edinburgh – and other Yorkshire venues also started to book Kneehigh shows for their audiences, including the Bradford Alhambra and Sheffield Lyceum.

Over a decade ago, however, the West Yorkshire Playhouse had already cottoned on and provided a Northern base in its building for Kneehigh, allowing Yorkshire audiences to see what the rest of the country was about to fall in love with. The company brought shows like The Wooden Frock, The Bacchae and Nights at the Circus to Leeds, where audiences loved the company’s anarchic, free-spirited shows.

Unique in its approach to making theatre, Kneehigh’s shows are created in a barn in Cornwall, overlooking the sea, by a group of theatre makers who live together for the weeks they spend making their shows. I say unique; there are other examples of theatre companies coming together in this way, but it is highly unusual in these days in the world of the cash-strapped arts to see theatre made like this.

Emma Rice is the woman who has for some time now been the driving force behind the company, making theatre with an individual voice that looked like nothing anyone else was doing.

Those of us who have been watching her work over the years were, on the one hand, a little surprised when she was recently announced as the person to take over artistic directorship of Shakespeare’s Globe next year, following Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole into one of British theatre’s most high profile roles.

On the other hand, it is strange to even begin to imagine a Kneehigh without Rice, given that her vision is so inextricably linked to the company and its productions.

Rice herself agrees with the assessment. “If you cut me through I have got Kneehigh running through me,” she says. She’s working out, with both Kneehigh and the Globe, what roles she will have in the future – unsurprisingly, she wants to remain connected in some way to Kneehigh. That, however, is next year. Right now, Rice is all about Kneehigh, which has meant a summer in the Cornish barn, making what is expected to be another spectacular show.

These days when Kneehigh takes its shows on the road and comes to Yorkshire, Bradford and Sheffield are on the itinerary.

The latest show, coming to the Bradford Alhambra and Sheffield Lyceum this autumn, is Rice’s adaptation of Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s dark and brooding novel, famously set in Cornwall.

“It was long overdue that we did a production of this. I 
have always loved the story and it’s a story that is perfectly suited to us as a company, but it feels like this is the moment for it to finally happen,” says Rice.

It is strange that it has taken so long. Rice is a key part of the company’s identity and the way the work is made, in the barn, is also a defining element, but the artistic director has always been clear that the Cornish backdrop is also absolutely intrinsic to the work it produces.

Similarly, du Maurier’s story, famously turned into a movie by Hitchcock, is heavily influenced by the Cornish coast.

One of literature’s most famous opening lines, the book begins: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Manderley is the fictional estate of Maxim de Winter, the place he returns to with his new young bride – in Cornwall.

“I’ve always felt that the star of the story is Cornwall, and the sea around the Cornish coast,” says Rice.

“So I wanted our production to have that sense of the sea, I wanted it to have the call of the sea as a backdrop to the story.”

Rebecca was du Maurier’s most successful work, telling a story of jealousy. It tells the story of Max de Winter and the new Mrs De Winter who is consumed by jealousy, surrounded as she and her new husband are by memories of his former wife Rebecca.

A dark and foreboding novel, it’s easy to see how the gothic elements will fit with the Kneehigh sensibility, but the company is also known for its great wit – will it find comedy in Rebecca?

“It’s a big book and a big story and the challenge has been working out how to tell the story in an entertaining and satisfying way,” says Rice.

“I’m confident we’ve managed to find a way of doing both those things.”