Muses on Kneehigh

A couple of days ago I saw Kneehigh Theatre’s latest offering ‘Rebecca’. I’ve been a fan of theirs for years, enjoying the immediacy of their ‘rough’ approach to performance. There are certain constants: music, direct involvement with the audience, humour – often slapstick or deliberately silly – movement/dance, to name a few. And of course, they are Cornish, so that we Cornish are very proud of them and their growing success. It was with trepidation at first that I watched ‘Tristan and Iseult’ at the National Theatre, wondering how something that I’d last seen against a background of cliffs and sea would come off confined indoors. I needn’t have worried. It was wonderful – different, but just as moving. What Kneehigh excels in is what Peter Brook calls ‘Rough’ Theatre – but what it occasionally achieves is what Brook calls ‘Holy Theatre.’ At its best it combines the two- Brook’s idea of the perfect style of theatre. I have never forgotten ‘The Bacchae’ where after howling with laughter, we were suddenly chilled to the core as the God Dionysus, rising [on a trapeze] further and further out of reach of his clamouring fans, leaves the leader of them, the Queen Agarve, to gradually realise the horror of what she has done. Uncaring, the God moves on, sublimely indifferent, leaving the Queen to come out of her frenzy covered in the blood of the son she has ripped to shreds.

‘Rebecca’ does not have quite that impact, but at times it is close. What it does have is an extraordinary and versatile set, managing to combine the seashore with the grandeur of Mandeley’s interior and even under the sea. A wooden boat rises at the opening till we have the impression we are at the bottom of the sea looking up at the underside of the craft. In a scooped out section of the sea’s bottom lies the remains of the drowned Rebecca. It is an eerie and very effective opening. The whole thing is a masterly piece of story-telling, leaving nothing of the original story out but adding in Kneehigh’s own blend of humour through the characters of an over-the-top Beatrice [Maxim de Winter’s sister] and her husband Giles plus a particularly dopy but endearing serving-lad, Ben. We see an initially rather droopy new bride, the second wife – but she grows in strength until she is a fitting equal for the malevolent spirit of Rebecca.

All in all, this is a production that is a gift for all students who have to write reviews for plays or see a play for particular close study and comment. If you didn’t see it in its West End opening, or here in Cornwall, it is now on tour until mid-December. I can’t recommend it highly enough! For those studying Brook, Brecht or set-design, it is also a gift.

Though this, my first blog, appears to be a promotion advert for Kneehigh, don’t despair! To follow on soon will be all sorts of other theatre-based musings and recommendations, plus a few ideas for lessons. Keep following my blogs!