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My Cousin Rachel

by on 5 February 2020

Passion on the Rocks

My Cousin Rachel

by Daphne Du Maurier, adapted by Joseph O’Connor.

Theatre Royal Bath at Richmond Theatre until 8th February

Review by Mark Aspen

Kernow. Now there’s a name of mystery: it’s different and almost exotic. Cornwall has a certain differentness about it, the only English county with its own language, its sea pounded rocky peninsulas, beasts wandering its moors, and of course all those differently named Cornish saints, names that don’t exist elsewhere. There’s a preponderance of the surname English in Devon, an historical relic of times when the Tamar was a big boundary and the them-and-us-ness was more marked, times like the mid-nineteenth century when Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, My Cousin Rachel is set.

Add in a mysterious stranger who comes from a different, almost exotic country, and you have a potential powder-keg of tension. And of course, we are all suspicious of strangers (think the high-vis man who knocks unannounced at your front door and offers to “repair” your roof). Moreover though, if the mysterious stranger is also beautiful then it ups the potential for passion, and you have all the ingredients for the gothic romantic thriller, one of the hallmarks of Du Maurier.

full company My Cousin Rachel - Photography by Manuel Harlan -094

Barton House is a fine country mansion on the Cornish coast, the home for many generations of the landed and wealthy Ashley family. Twenty-four years old Phillip is the current incumbent of Barton and, following the death in Italy of Ambrose Ashley, Phillip is due to inherit the estate on his twenty-fifth birthday. He had been orphaned as a young child and for most of his life Ambrose, an older cousin, had been his attentive and loving guardian. Now, in these months before Phillip is to become master of Barton, the estate is held under the trusteeship of the family solicitor, Nicholas Kendall, also a close family friend, affectionately known as Nick. Indeed, his daughter, Louise has been always Phillip’s childhood companion.

Notwithstanding the frequent visits of Louise, Barton House has been an exclusively masculine domain. Even the household servants are all men, the old retainer John Seecombe and the young Thomas Conners, given employment after losing a leg in an industrial accident. Masters and servants have a mutual loyalty and respect which binds them in this austere environment. Into this milieu, unexpectedly, arrives an Italian countess, Contessa Sangalletti, who is Ambrose’s widow and another cousin in the tangled branches of the Ashley family tree. She is Rachel Coryn Ashley.

The presence of Rachel has an unnerving effect on the settled household. Rachel is a stranger, an exotic foreigner, and most difficult of all, a woman. On all three counts, she is a cause for deep suspicion. Why is she here: is she merely nostalgically visiting her late husband’s home, or is she after something for herself? Did Ambrose die, deranged, from a brain tumour, or did she have some hand in his death? Has she come to give or to take, to build or to destroy? The feelings of Phillip and Nick, and even of Louise, see-saw between attraction and repulsion. Only the servants are delighted in what seems like a breath of fresh air from the self-assured Rachel, but the other men feel threatened. Moreover, she is very beautiful and her attractions, of which she is all-too aware, gradually outweigh the balance of the see-saw. Clues push feeling one way or another and the plot develops more twists and turns than a Cornish cliff path.

The atmosphere of this volatile situation is beautifully evoked in designer Richard Kent’s clever set, mounted on a revolve and symbolically symmetrical. Its overarching feature is an elegant sweeping spiral staircase, its helix embracing the gothic Barton house, black and purple with soot-blackened baronial fireplace on the inside and opening to the Atlantic seascape at Guinevere’s Point on its outside. David Platter’s mood-enhancing lighting and Max Pappenheim’s tingling soundscape complete the charged ambience.

The metastable balance is carefully handled by director Anthony Banks and his skilled cast. Banks is not afraid to use silence, not in the sense of an awkward hiatus but of a suspended moment, characters weighing each other’s motives, a look that betrays the words, or that eyes-meeting moment. There is “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” as T.S.Eliot would have put it. Banks is a prolific director, and a past-master in the thriller, many of which have been seen at Richmond Theatre (most recently Dial M for Murder) and hits a zenith with My Cousin Rachel.

Jack Holden (Philip Ashley) My Cousin Rachel - Photograby by Manuel Harlan 129The Phillip Ashley we first see is grieving and not able to come to terms with Ambrose’s death. He is at the anger stage of grief and looking for something to blame. After the arrival of Rachel, his petulance becomes impetuosity as the charms of the older woman win over his suspicions. Jack Holden as Phillip depicts an immature young man, who would be a lairy “youf” if it were not for his sense of duty, but one who is genuinely troubled. He is a complex character, full of deep affection for his home and his household, including his loyal servants. Holden’s Phillip is buttoned-up with values instilled in him as a member of the landed gentry, but with another Phillip, impulsive and expressive, bursting to get out. Here is a young man with a long emotional journey from a misogynist, who equates marriage with murder, to a bowled-over lover who would give everything he has for the cousin with whom he has become infatuated.

Helen George (Rachel) My Cousin Rachel - Photography by Manuel Harlan 085The impetus of that emotional journey of Phillip’s is the eponymous Cousin Rachel, an enigmatic figure of aristocratic bearing, fearless and self-confident. Helen George, currently best known for her role in the television series, Call the Midwife, here delivers an outstanding portrayal of Rachel as imperious and proud, her clipped tones adding to her authority. The multifaceted mystery of this winning widow only serves to add to her allure, and she is certainly not a lady to be crossed. She is intelligent and her multiple talents range from creating exotic tisanni, her herbal teas that raise further suspicions amongst her paranoid hosts, to landscape gardening. Helen George’s attractive portrait of Rachel is boldly painted, with strong characterisation, a particular example being her powerful speech when Rachel rejects a monetary allowance as unwanted charity, accusing Phillip of “ignorance and arrogance”.

Simon Shepherd (Nicholas Kendall) My Cousin Rachel - Photography by Manuel Harlan 005Kendall regards himself as guardian of not only the estate of his friend Ambrose, but also of the good name of the Ashley family and, by extension, that of local society. He constantly admonishes Phillip for any perceived in impropriety or weakness, urging him not show his emotions in front of the servants, whilst himself at first falling for Rachel’s charms. His mantra, “Things are done a certain way” is taken up by Phillip, sometimes mainly to extract himself from embarrassment. An assured and insightful actor, Simon Shepherd cuts a sharp figure as Kendall, astute and protective, yet not impervious to distractions.

Phillip fails to see that Louise is in love with him, although Rachel understands this straight away. The light-hearted and patient Louise is played with fetching charm by the sparkling Aruhan Galieva, as a constant factor in Phillip’s life. Louise, like her father, is both alarmed by, and jealous of, Rachel’s hold over Phillip.

Sean Murray (John Seecombe) My Cousin Rachel -Photography by Manuel Harlan 018The only characters acceptant of Rachel are the servants, Seecombe and Thomas. Long serving and much trusted Seecombe is the epitome of the “true and faithful servant”. He is comfortable with the family and they with him, but Seecombe immediately warms to Rachel, delighted to have a lady about the house once more. He can replace stuffed stag’s heads with flower arrangements, and is happy to assist Rachel in re-planning the garden. Sean Murray plays Seecombe as an amiable, kind and down-to-earth countryman. Seecombe’s loyalty is unimpeachable, think Adam in As You Like It. He also has some great Cornish turns of phrase. The manservant Thomas Conners is equally loyal, and is grateful that the Ashley family has rescued him from penury after his life-changing accident. Thomas has a hobby making string marionettes; perhaps so that he can still vicariously control a limb that he has lost. John Lumsden plays Thomas as a likeable, but sometimes cheeky young man, reliable and steadfast.

John Lumsden (Thomas Connors) My Cousin Rachel - Photography by Manuel Harlan 017

As they are beginning to be reconciled to Rachel, perhaps too much so, and Kendall warns that “the word mistress has many meanings”, so in Act Two a new side to Rachel is revealed with the unannounced arrival of Guido Rainaldi, an old friend of Rachel’s in Italy and ostensibly her lawyer. Rainaldi makes a stark contrast to Phillip and Kendall, snappily dressed and suave, he is ideologically the antithesis of them. He expresses his laid-back approach, “While you Englishmen conquer the world, we drink wine and make love in the sun”. His recollection of “nights of folly” with Rachel draws barbed insults from Phillip, who is riposted with seeming good-humoured but equally slighting replies. Christopher Hollis clearly enjoys playing Rainaldi but wisely steers way from a too-easy caricature towards a relaxed urbanity.

Banks has an eye for composition. Rainaldi’s presence in the room could have been etched by Hogarth, the Rachel-Phillip altercation in the garden painted by Millet (indeed with the two manservants in the background it smacks of The Angelus), or the Christmas scene illustrated by John Leech, it so resemble a Dickensian Christmas. This particular tableaux, with family, visitors and servants singing carols to the accompaniment of Louise on the piano, gave a quiet moment of beauty, and greatly enhanced by Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter, touchingly sung by the cast. A bit of an anachronism (there are a few) but who cares when the best Christmas carol in the canon is sung so well, especially by the lady members of the cast.

Harmony is however, not maintained in the running passions at Barton. Pride and jealousy surge in turn and the gradual dismantling of propriety fires up the emotional stew-pot. The plot moves on with a palpable inevitability along a path strewn with red herrings. If the path were straight the dramatic ending would be one of overblown melodrama, but this is Du Maurier who has ensured that it is not. There are the checks of the unexpected turns, of the balance of emotions, and there’s the mystery, the exoticism, there’s Cornwall.

Mark Aspen
February 2020

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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