Watching this musical reworking of Emile Zola’s ThÃ©rÃ¨se Raquin unfold, it is easy to discern the tensions between naturalism and melodrama present in the original. Over the course of the production, we are presented with a milieu of lower-middle-class tradespeople and clerks undertaking their mundane daily routines: walking to work through the Paris streets, selling buttons, playing dominoes. We are also presented with an adulterous affair between central characters, Therese and Laurent, their murder of Therese’s husband, attempted murder of each other and final double suicide.
Zola’s examination of Therese and Laurent as products of their physiological conditioning is reflected in the choral refrain ‘blood and nerves…blood and nerves.’ Indeed the chorus’ introduction of the two lovers ‘In the world there are billions of human animals, here is one…Therese/Laurent’ is a strong proposition of engagement with Zola’s view.
As the house lights dim, figures dressed in modern versions of nineteenth century dress fill the set. The ensemble of eight weave around a wooden framework surrounding a small, interior space, suggestive of dank, old houses, a puzzle of open and shut doorways and window frames. The space contains a few simple but evocative props: a display of gaiters from Madame Raquin’s shop, a candle-holder, a blanket. The cast gathers centre stage, choir-like, singing the status-quo of Madame Raquin’s household.
She has recently overseen a marriage between her feeble, coddled son, Camille, and strange, quiet niece, Therese. What is notable among this chorus and between the three ‘river-women’ who represent Therese’s psyche, is an absence of individualism. They sing composer Craig Adams’ Sondheimesque music with a distinct manner and timbre of voice; the audience is left thirsty for more non-verbal information about the composite parts of this knowing, nineteenth century crowd. The Finborough’s intimacy as a venue demands detail and the stasis of the chorus during the drama’s opening does not deliver on this front.
As the drama’s crises escalate, the relationship between movement and melodrama becomes more neatly bound together. A contemporary dance aesthetic is used to express Therese and Laurent’s antagonistic tormenting of each other. The two cling, flail, embrace and fall. Zola’s intention to present the lovers’ guilt through physical symptoms (insomnia and nervous attacks) is conveyed in this way. Atherton and Lewis play these episodes with conviction and the right degree of front-footed amplification. But although both leads are consistently credible as virile peasant Laurent and intense, introverted Therese, there is a lack of tangible chemistry. Attraction between the couple is signified, suggested, but not palpable, not dangerous, despite the strong performances of Julie Atherton and Ben Lewis.
There are many strong moments in Nona Shepphard’s production. Therese’s reflection on how Camille’s murder has killed her rapture in the song ‘If I Had Known’ is one such moment. The repeated rituals of Madame Raquin’s games night (including the addictive song ‘Thursday Nights’ ) are also powerful. The incident in which the, now paralysed, Madame Raquin begins to spell out Therese and Laurent’s crime is, however, an ambiguous rendering, made clearer by the other actors’ commentary on what is happening.
Therese Raquin, with its melodramatic plot and host of tragic little details (the bite-mark left by Camille on Laurent’s neck), makes a perfect candidate for such a radical shift of format and the leap from naturalism to populist opera is in many ways successful. (Laurent’s ‘blood’ and Therese’s ‘nerves’ are equally represented.) Indeed, there’s something symphonic about the book’s structure, in the journey towards repressed horror, violence and final self-destruction. Shepphard and Adams have skilfully retained a fidelity to Zola’s story while robustly exploiting the immersive potential of theatre, even so as intelligent and engaging as this production is, it’s not quite as radical as it might have been, it remains tame in places.