On Monday night to the Theatre Royal, Bath, to see another play based on a famous novel: this time Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.
Some of these stage adaptations of famous novels work very well. The Young Visiters, seen last Friday, was a delight. Rebecca, sadly, wasn't.
Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca in 1938. It has sometimes been described as the greatest of the imitations of Jane Eyre, but the plot, when baldly stated, would tax the credulity and patience of a ten-year-old.
Our heroine (she has no name in either novel, film, or play) is working as a lady's companion when she meets a rich English widower, Maxim de Winter. Maxim sweeps the young woman off her feet, marries her, and takes her back to Manderley, his large country house near the sea. The Manderley household features the usual array of characters: a faithful butler ('I've served the family man and boy'); a village idiot ('Don't let them put me in the asylum, Miss -- especially as I'm a key witness in Act Two'); and a nasty housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.
Everyone at Manderley is obsessed by the memory of Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, who drowned in the sea.
None of the key characters, viewed objectively, has any appeal whatever. The heroine (who narrates the novel) is a complete wimp. Maxim is a member of the idle rich -- a class of people whom it is hard to admire at any time, but particularly, one might have thought, in the 1930s. And Mrs Danvers speaks so far out of turn for a 1930s servant that no employer, or employer's wife, would have put up with her for thirty seconds.
In due course, Maxim confesses to his second wife that he actually murdered Rebecca. She was a tart, you see, and provoked him. Anyone would have shot her. At which point the wimpish wife suddenly acquires some backbone; but the backbone has a curious twist to it. She does not report his crime to the police; on the contrary, she becomes determined to protect her husband against any charge of murder.
Such dramatic moments as occurred in the latest stage version of the story (such as the first-act curtain) are presumably lifted from the book, and they arise out of faux pas and ludicrous misunderstandings which could have been avoided by anyone with any common sense.
One member of the cast does come to the conclusion that Max murdered Rebecca, and he says so. This is is Jack Favell, one of the Rebecca's lovers, and he is clearly a bounder because he wears co-respondent shoes.
The allegation of murder is dealt with by having the matter investigated by a friendly local magistrate: a dining pal of Max's. He holds an informal meeting in Max's sitting-room. Evidence, of a sort, is provided by the village idiot and by a lady doctor who was consulted by Rebecca shortly before she died.
The lady doctor gladly reveals Rebecca's medical history ('I know this is unprofessional, but...') and it emerges that Rebecca had been diagnosed with incurable cancer. So she had a motive for suicide. Ergo any suggestion that Max murdered her is clearly nonsense. (Technically this is known a deus ex machina, or desperate ploy invented by an author who has got her hero up a tree and can't think how to get him down again.)
And now you see, I hope, what I mean about the plot taxing one's patience and credulity.
It has to be said, however, that Daphne du Maurier evidently wrote the original novel with enough bravura to turn the thing into a big popular success. That initial success snowballed when the novel was (a) adapted for radio in the US by the great Orson Welles, and (b) filmed by Alfred Hitchock with Laurence Olivier in the lead.
It is a tribute to the skills of Olivier and Hitchcock that they managed to turn this unlikely story into a big fat hit. Rebecca the movie won two Oscars (including best picture) and was nominated for nine more.
So much for the history. And now someone has decided to produce a new version of the book for the English stage; I say new because there was a 1940 version starring Celia Johnson as the heroine and featuring Margaret Rutherford as Mrs Danvers. And I say 'someone' because it is not clear to me who initiated this new venture.
Whoever it was, they have assembled a formidable array of talent and spent a lot of money. As producers we have David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, both of whom have a long string of hits behind them. The director is Patrick Mason, who gave us the original production of Dancing at Lughnasa. The script is by Frank McGuiness, a prize-winning playwright. And Nigel Havers stars. And there were, if I counted correctly, fourteen actors on stage for the final curtain, a huge number by modern standards, because any more than five is usually considered uneconomic.
One way and another then, a large number of talented people have convinced themselves that this weary old warhorse still has life in it, and they have devoted a lot of time and effort to presenting it to the public. And to be fair, I have to say that the play is running for two weeks in Bath, and on the Monday night of the second week the place was packed.
That said, I find it difficult to think of anything nice to say about this production at all. The action takes place against a bank of shingle, representing a Cornish beach, and the design is almost monochrome -- perhaps seeking to evoke the success of the movie. Changes of locale are suggested by the most minimal means: chairs and tables mostly.
But absolutely nothing seemed right to me. Nigel Havers initially wears a suit which doesn't fit, and his evening dress isn't much better. As for the lighting -- well, the lighting director has chosen to light the production entirely from the wings, with the result that the actors are for ever casting shadows on each other's faces. I couldn't see the logic of this at first, but I began to suspect that it was an arrangement specifically requested by the cast. They were probably so embarrassed by what they were asked to do and say that they wanted to make sure that no one would be able to recognise them in the street.
The actors, of course, did their best. Actors always do. But it was a losing battle. One thing, however, was excellent: Mrs GOB and I were both agreed on that. Filmed shots of the sea, breaking on the Cornish coast, are at certain points projected on to a giant screen at the back of the stage. This, we thought, was rather good.
The rest of it was dire.