"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again ..." begins the most famous of Daphne du Maurier's novels, Rebecca. Gloom hangs over her characters as dense as the fog that shrouds the rugged coast of Cornwall, the author's home for a good part of her life and a frequent setting for her books. With Rebecca, her fifth novel, the 20th century British author established her mastery of suspenseful tales, dark romances shot through with haunting, almost gothic, atmospherics. Five novels later, she returned to the romantic thriller with My Cousin Rachel, once again weaving a tangled web of sinister liaisons, this one set in the latter days of sailing ships and horse-drawn carriages.
Maurier excelled at creating a sense of foreboding. Her thrillers inhabit an almost monochrome world, full of shadows and suspicion, each plot twist relentlessly drawing ordinary people into feverish paranoia. Not surprisingly, Alfred Hitchcock was a great fan of the author, adapting Rebecca into an Oscar-winning film. And in 1952 My Cousin Rachel got the silver screen treatment with Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland in the lead roles. Tales like these beg to be rendered in black-and-white film. In fact, du Maurier was noir before noir became dominated by dark heroes in fedoras and glitzy dames in pearls and a pool of blood. What distinguishes du Maurier's work is that the blunt trauma in her tales, such as it is, strikes the skull of its victims more deeply than the average "with-a-candlestick-in-the-library" assault: it hits the worst fears buried deep in the imagination.
For an author, the great advantage of such excellent creepiness is that it extends the longevity of the work. There will always be a ready market even for period pieces like this one since its spine-tingling charms can be freshly imagined for a new generation.
My Cousin Rachel's plot is straightforward enough. Philip Ashley, a seven-year-old orphan, is taken into his cousin Ambrose's care at the elder Ashley's Cornwall estate. They lead a companionable, very settled life until Philip reaches young adulthood. When Ambrose grows sick, on doctor's orders, he's prescribed winters abroad. In the intervening months, Philip is left to tend the estate he will one day inherit. And Philip's far less hospitable Cornish winters are lightened somewhat by a steady stream of letters from his cousin.
On his third winter abroad, Ambrose heads to sunny Italy where he meets Rachel and in due course, Philip learns from his cousin's letters, falls hard for her and marries. Suddenly, all bets are off. Ambrose has no plans to return to Cornwall and Philip's inheritance may be out the window.
Then word arrives that Ambrose has died. Philip, very attached to his cousin, is inconsolable. An investigative trip to Italy of his own gives him reason to suspect that Ambrose's failing health may not have been entirely natural. He returns home, still unsettled about it all.
Unexpectedly, Rachel arrives in Cornwall to return her late husband's effects to the estate. Still hoping to get to the bottom of his cousin's suspicious demise, Philip invites Rachel to stay on in Cornwall for a while. Beyond her own pride, there's little argument against Rachel extending her visit. With her husband dead, she's all but destitute. Things get only more tangled as Philip finds himself growing quite fond of Rachel. Can mayhem, real or imagined, be far off?
Noted Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor (brother of Sinéad), adapted My Cousin Rachel for the 21st-century stage. The material lends itself well to our own era. Background elements in the novel's period storyline have a stubborn historical persistence, if not timeliness.
Maurier appears to have been keenly aware of the feminist issues raised by Rachel's central dilemma, issues of equality. The economic survival of women in Rachel's day was entirely dependent upon the men in their lives. A husband's death might well rob his widow of a home. That's certainly Rachel's problem, and possibly her motive, for what follows.
Even as Philip's affections are swayed to Rachel's side, these feelings cannot help but conflict with his unyielding suspicions. Another, far less attractive, Italian arrives in Cornwall and things grow decidedly dicey as a result.
O'Connor's take on the drama, which debuted at Dublin's Gate Theatre in 2012, does seek to balance noir tension with at least a bit of levity. And he's brought forward the underlying cultural strain between the stodgy, male-dominated Anglican culture of the Cornwall countryside and Rachel, the beautiful Italian suddenly arrived among them.
In addition to O'Connor, the Gate's production of Rachel benefits from some other, also stellar, talents. Toby Frow, celebrated early in his directorial career as one of British theater's "bright young things," directed the original show and once again steers his cast in keeping the pace lively. Tony Award-winning Hannah Yelland returns as Rachel, the role that marked her critically acclaimed debut on the Gate's Dublin stage.
In fact, much of the talent here will be familiar to regular viewers of PBS, BBC America, and HBO drama imports, among them: Stephen Brennan (Ballykissangel, Father Ted); Bosco Hogan (Sense and Sensibility, The Borgias), and Fra Fee (Les Miserables — the 2012 film).
The Gate Theatre company has a series of Spoleto success. This production, like previous ones, arrives already garlanded in critical praise, ensuring a solid evening's entertainment.