My Cousin Rachel at the Gate Theatre

November 4, 2013



Daphne DuMaurier’s 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel is a tightly wound psychosexual drama full of intrigue and insinuation.

Joseph O Connors adaptation for the Gate is not. Desperate not to startle the horses that have kept the theatre at full commercial cant all these years, what O Connor give us is a familiar gender farce, where bon mots and double entendres are said for the audience’s benefit and not the characters. The sheer number of them means that the easy laughs takes precedence over the books darker edges-the misogyny, issues of identity and dubious moral behavior of its leads. So essentially what O’Connor’s done is taken Du Maurier and played it as one of the venues popular Wilde productions.

Philip Ashley has inherited the estate of his beloved guardian Ambrose, who died of a brain fever in Italy in the villa of his new bride, Rachel. Letters from Ambrose towards the end suggested he had grown increasingly suspicious of his wife and when Rachel turns up in Cornwall to return some of her late husbands things, Philip must discover if she really is a gold digging murderess or if that was a manifestation of Ambrose’s illness. His growing attraction to the widow and her impact on an estate -long missing a woman’s touch, should cloud his, and our, judgment.

But so short is this adaptation it forgoes any attempt to build dramatic tension or delve into character, preferring to include as many key moments as possible at the expense of the emotion that lend weight to them. Without that human connection the piece feels about as urgent as a midsummer murder.

Characters spend so much time spieling out back-story it feels like a radio drama. But the greatest blow of all is O’Connor’s choice to ignore the question that should hang over Rachel, steering us, with the help of Toby Frows hysteric direction, to come to a definite conclusion without ever confirming it. As a result the play is dramatically inert until its final moments.

As always with the Gate the production values are high. As the servants throw back the paneled windows, peels of feminine light and hope swim through, capturing the spell Rachel has cast on the all-male household. Mark Jonathan’s lighting also draws on candle and firelight, evening shadows and flashes of lightning to create the Gothic mood absent from O’Connor’s script, giving us a sense impending doom and unshakable melancholy.

Frances O Connor’s drawing room set is impressively realised. But its constant presence makes the scenes by the sea feel amateurish, shoddily realised through a child’s night-light and the swells of Dennis Clohessy’s soundscape. We never leave the house. Which might be an artistic statement. But it looks crap and bellies the theatres continuing lack of imagination when it comes to their sets.

A lack of imagination is something the Gate is renowned for when it comes to how they cast their plays. If Michael Colgan was going to import an actress one wonders why he didn’t just get an Italian actress to play the part of Rachel. Hannah Yeland is of impressive pedigree- Tony award nominated for Brief Encounter. But her accent is atrocious. She lacks the Mediterranean fire the part requires, notably in any scenes where she is called upon to be physical with Rea’s Philip. And while she does a solid job imparting the contradictions that make up her character she remains all too English to captivate.

Rea takes over from the more urchin like Michael Legge. A decade too old for the part he’s been stuck with a thankless role which any actor would struggle with. Subjected to unexplained and extreme shifts in opinion, even Rea can’t build something stable on top of O’Connor’s shoddy foundations.

As for the rest Amy Molloy is shrieking jolly hockey sticks as Louise the woman Philip throws over for Rachel, Bryan Murray is so hammy he’s oinking as the (supposed-to-be) mysterious Rainaldi and John Cronin and Bosco Hogan bring little bar affectation to the servants. I’ve bemoaned the fact that Stephen Brennan appears with such regularity on the Gate stage, often at the expense of the productions integrity, but My Cousin Rachel would have been absolutely useless without him going through the motions.

Michael Colgan is no fool. My Cousin Rachel was playing to almost full houses five weeks into its revival. But the truth, to my eyes, is that the Gate seems spent as an artistic force. In my three years as a critic, nothing that has been put on in Cavendish Row, bar a terrific lead performance from Harris Yulin in Death of a Salesman and Tom Creed’s marvelous production of Watt, was in anyway exciting, involving or moving. Their shows are done to a standard. Unfortunately it’s their own antiquated ones. Colgan, similar to Du Maurier’s most infamous villain, Mrs. Danvers, would prefer to see his Manderley burned to the ground than allow the winds of change rattle through his fiefdom.

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