The forces of society and the drives of the individual are not the best bedfellows in this racy take on Émile Zola’s classic, from adapter/director Nona Shepphard. Loyal to the novel’s characteristic naturalism, and faithful to its eagerness to shock, Shepphard gives us an eponymous heroine with a distinct breed of socialised selfishness. Thérèse is, at once, a fiery individual who stubbornly acts as the author of her own fate; in other ways, the production holds its lead character up as an example of society’s power over its subjects, as husband Camille (Jeremy Legat) and his manipulative mother, Madame Raquin (played with a thrillingly egomaniacal zest by Tara Hugo), pull at the puppet strings of Thérèse’s life.
Borrowing a little bit from Jackanory, and a little bit from Euripides, Thérèse Raquin starts off by putting an RP-accented storyteller and a taunting citizen chorus on stage to introduce the central characters and pave the way for their downfall. Evidently well-versed in the literary theory behind this text, the production treats its central characters as little more than case studies; we are immediately told that, “In the world there are billions of human animals. Here is one: Thérèse.” Neil Fraser’s lighting is assertive, splintering this stubbornly realist narrative with sharp snapshots. Fraser’s photogenic bursts of light artfully remind us that these characters can be read as rationally calculated statements on society, rather than sympathetically portrayed individuals.
While any adaptation of this novel runs the risk of painting feeble old Camille too transparently, Legat’s take on this character is the cheerily manipulative master of his own ailments. With a hammy triple cough, Legat gives us the king of the Monday morning sickie; later, when making a case for a move to Paris, Camille trills “If I can’t have a quill / I’ll make myself ill”, getting what he wants through a joyously operatic tantrum. There’s a beautifully measured contradiction to this character, evident as he is observant about all the wrong things: with a spirited joie de vivre, he exclaims “Just think! They are having [the Notre Dame] repaired, Thérèse.” No aspect of this new life escapes his attention, except – crucially – his wife’s ennui.
Thérèse Raquin may be a musical, but at its heart is an emphatically visual piece. Daring adulterers Thérèse and Laurent give us an adaptation of a very different classic text, as they take up an gymnastic variety of positions upon the stage. Laura Cordery’s scaffolded set design – while brilliantly recreating the suffocating, static haberdashery, where poor Thérèse is “buried alive” and “bored to death” – serves as a striking and versatile backdrop for numerous scenes within the novel. Quiet until Laurent gives her a reason to scream, Julie Atherton’s Thérèse maintains a powerful presence upon the stage. While tuneful fellow cast members make attempts to define her character, Atherton cultivates an intense silence and icy glare. “Do excuse her” pleads apologetic Camille, as his wife first locks her attention upon Laurent, “She doesn’t say much”.
While later interactions between Thérèse and Laurent verge on the sickly sweet, and a few of the more dramatic choruses are so thick they are almost impossible to decipher, there’s a true fire within this production, a knowing exhibition of the show’s own fictionality, and a talented celebration of the classic novel’s sharply provocative spirit.
Thérèse Raquin is playing at Park Theatre until 24 August. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.