Dublin’s Gate Theatre is as close to a sure bet as you can get in a Spoleto season. The internationally-renowned company has performed at so many Spoletos we’ve lost count, and — unless we’re misremembering — they’ve killed it every time. It’s no surprise, then that they’ve created another excellent production with My Cousin Rachel.
In recent years, the Gate has taken to bringing frothy, funny period pieces like Noel Coward’s Hay Fever stateside, but this year’s production is markedly different. My Cousin Rachel is based on Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name, which tells the story of a young man, Philip, whose guardian, Ambrose Ashley, dies while abroad in Florence. Prior to his death, Ambrose sent Philip mysterious letters implying that his new wife, Rachel, has had something to do with his decline — if not outright murdering him, then sending him to his grave through her carelessness, cruelty, and greediness. When the mourning widow shows up unexpectedly, Philip, who has inherited Ambrose’s vast Cornwall estate, is deeply suspicious of her motives and character. Although he asks her to stay at with him at the estate out of a desire to discover her guilt, he begins to fall in love with her, throwing everything he previously thought into shadowy question.
Now, because this is du Maurier, creeping foreboding is the name of My Cousin Rachel’s game. The single set is a gloomy drawing room dominated by a wide staircase, a massive, cold fireplace, and a ghostly portrait of the late Ambrose, which haunts the space with its flat gaze.
And — once again, because this is du Maurier — there is a more material ghost in this house, too, or at least in the heart and mind of young Philip. He is tormented by guilt over Ambrose’s death, certain that had he gone to Florence in time he could have helped save his guardian from a lonely, fearful demise at the hands of his deceitful wife. He reads Ambrose’s final letters, which are voiced over in a truly creepy tone that will send shivers up anyone’s spine, over and over, cementing his belief that Rachel is a murderer (it doesn’t help that one of the letters reads “I have seen the face of evil,” referring, of course, to Rachel).
To make things even more troubling, when Rachel arrives she is sad, kind, and gracious, saying that her husband was out of his mind in the weeks before he died. For Philip, the crux of the matter becomes whether this worldly, beautiful, Italian woman is telling the truth or hiding a Borgia-type penchant for intrigue and cold-blooded killing — yet the real tragedy, it becomes clear, is what this kind of suspicion does to a person’s soul. There will surely be no happy ending for anyone in this story.
The aforementioned set does its job admirably, and a great part of that is due to the lighting design by Mark Jonathan. When the characters open the tall windows on sunny days, it seems that real sunlight is pouring through the shutters; the effect is so warm you can almost feel it on your skin. And when the drawing room must stand in for the cliffs along which Philip likes to walk, the walls are washed in an undulating aquatic light.
Fra Fee as Philip Ashley does most of the heavy lifting in My Cousin Rachel. Rarely offstage during the entire two-plus-hour performance, Fee’s stamina is incredible. Without melodrama, he convincingly portrays his character’s appropriately gothic emotional swings and perfectly captures Philip’s tragic flaw of youthful impulsiveness.
Hannah Yelland as Rachel is a mix of feminine demureness and imperiousness, and she keeps the audience guessing. Is she a heartless golddigger? A devoted wife? A cruel murderess? A little pouch of herbs for tea that she keeps close by hints at poison, but her loving attitude toward Philip and her grief for her husband seem sincere. She is an enigma, which according to the male servants that Philip has grown up with, merely makes her a woman.
Rachel is placed in sharp contrast to Philip’s close friend Louise (Rachel Gleeson), who is sweet, young, and in love with Philip. She and her father, Philip’s godfather Nicholas Kendall (Stephen Brennan) are the voices of reason in this story, and offer a glimpse of the normal, happy life that could be Philip’s if he were to do as everyone thinks he should and marry Louise. But all is not entirely bleak throughout the play. Bosco Hogan as the butler, Seecombe, and John Cronin as the servant Thomas provide some much needed comic relief and even Rachel is a lighthearted presence at times. A visit from Rachel’s Italian lawyer, Guido Rainaldi (Bryan Murray) offers an opportunity for some witty verbal sparring between him and the cocksure Philip.
But when the end comes, all humor is out the window. From the frightening fever dreams, which feature shrieking voices, long-nosed Venetian Carnivale masks, and ritualesque treatment of Philip’s sick body to the storm that signals the terrible climax, the last quarter of My Cousin Rachel is all gothic doom and gloom, with a healthy dose of pure scary thrown in.
It’s magnificently done, as we’ve come to expect of any Gate Theatre production, but it must be said that My Cousin Rachel will not leave you with many happy feelings. Instead, you may find yourself trying to shake off that sense of unease before the time comes to climb into bed.