Thérèse Raquin** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: August 17, 2016 in Theatre

Therese-Raquin-3040This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Taken seriously, Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola’s Paris-set tale of a woman struggling to break free from her shackles, can be seen as an early cry for feminist causes. However, there is little that asks to be taken too seriously in this new production.

Published as a novel in 1867 and turned into a play by Zola a little later, the story centres on a ménage à trois involving Thérèse, her sickly husband Camille and Laurent, Camille’s best friend. Seb Harcombe’s production cannot be described correctly as Victorian melodrama only because of the technicality that Victoria did not reign in France, but it often comes close to Grand Guignol as it alternates between sending us gently to sleep and scaring us half to death.

The narrative has only one thread and is relatively straightforward, but over-elaborate and laboured staging, particularly in Act I, stretches the running time to a few minutes short of three hours (including interval). A rather good adaptation, seen at the Finborough and Park theatres in London not long ago, condensed the same story into a much shorter time and it was able to fit in songs.

Appearing firstly in silhouette at a window, pleasuring herself, Lily Knight’s sullen and usually silent Thérèse smoulders with suppressed passion, turning fiery as the story unfolds. The target of her lust is Matthew Hopkinson’s Laurent, bearded, long-haired and manly. He is an artist, painting a portrait of the egocentric, boyish Camille, who is pampered by his mother (Alis Wyn Davies). Sam Goodchild makes Camille so irksome that it seem irrational that Thérèse and Laurent would be able to wait until almost the interval before bumping him off.

The dialogue tells us that the setting is Paris and the characters repeatedly say things such as “bonsoir” and “madame”, but Northern English accents suggest that we are in somewhere like Manchester and, when the incontinent Camille announces that he needs to “spend a penny”, it feels natural that it would not be a centime. The exception is the old-Etonian sounding Michaud (Freddie Greaves) who turns up regularly at the Raquin residence with his niece Suzanne (Venice van Someren) for games of dominoes.

The only writing credit is given to Zola, with no mention of an adaptor or translator. This could give a clue to the creators’ priorities, which, it seems, lie less with making the original script fit for purpose than with exploiting the potential in the piece for physical theatre. Camille’s long-delayed murder is staged with aplomb, in slow motion and with a neat nod to 1980s horror flicks. It gives the first signal that things could be about to improve when Act II turns to grief, guilt and retribution.

Sure enough, Harcombe’s production excels as it builds to its ferocious climax. Thérèse and Laurent clash in scenes that are raw and brutal, Camille reappears in ghostly form and shocks to jolt us out of our slumbers come thick and fast. It is still melodrama, but now it is compelling and, although all this does not atone fully for what has gone before, it offers significant compensation.

Performance date 15 August 2016

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