Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin is the story of two lovers caught in the fatal mechanism of their own flesh, compelled by irresistible desire to commit a despicable crime. It is, in Zola’s own words, about a couple with no free will, enslaved to passion and instinct. In this early modern fable, where one catastrophe leads inevitably to another, it is as though the world were nothing more than an infernal engine, with nature itself driving bad cause to ill effect.
In spite of its gruesome obsessions, it is a significant book, full of matter, a sort of monument to horror and madness, which continues to attract and amaze readers almost 150 years after it was first published.
In this new adaptation, written and directed by Gary Abrahams, a lot of that gothic grandeur is lost. Here we get less the inexorable machine, grinding nerves and blood, than two spiders fighting in a dusty bottle. The contest is exciting, and cruel, but also there is a sense of triviality. When it’s over, and the spiders are dead, will the combat be remembered?
Thérèse Raquin is a young woman who murders her husband with the help of her lover. In his adapted text, Abrahams does extraordinarily well to suggest the layers of intrigue and dread which make Zola’s bare scenario so enthralling, while successfully confining the action to a cramped, two-room apartment above a shop.
As a text, it is in fact a beautiful adaptation, with all the colour and energy of the novel, but re-imagined as pure drama. Whatever the limitations or deficiencies of this production, I think the script is very fine, and very much faithful to the spirit of the book. Although he keeps the period setting, Abrahams works with a sober, timeless sort of language, parcelling out Zola’s long descriptive passages in brief but compelling exchanges.
Abrahams takes adaptation very seriously. It was apparently the subject of his master’s thesis. He certainly knows what he’s doing. Thinking of Abrahams the writer reminds me of the preface Eric Bentley wrote to his adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Jug, debating the rights and wrongs of adaptation:
CLEGG: Plagiarism? “Based on” equals “stolen from”?
BENTLEY: But in an anarchistic utopia where there is no distinction
between stolen and borrowed! I take it where I find it, says
Moliere. Shakespeare does not even bother to tell anyone that Measure
for Measure is “based on” another play.
CLEGG: You are Shakespeare?
There’s much critical wisdom in the simulated innocence of Clegg, Bentley’s imaginary interlocutor. The real problem with adaptation — whether from a book a film or an existing script — is not whether adaptation itself is a good thing, but whether those undertaking the adaptation are any good. Abrahams is a writer who can stand with the best that we have.
Indeed, his assurance as a dramatist seems almost old-fashioned. Not for him the nervous recourse to metatheatrics and direct address, the instinct of so many young theatre makers, always doubting their ability to hold the audience’s attention unless human beings are described on stage exactly as they are in the world, or in the movies. For Gary Abrahams, text remains the keystone of theatre, and the stage is a different world, absolutely separate from the audience.
Still, the many merits of the script are not here seen to their best advantage. It’s entertaining, mostly, but not very moving. This production is too comfortable in its historical setting, too staid, too distant, and ultimately makes only a slight impression. As a director, Abraham’s is right to be unapologetic about his affection for melodrama, but he has not managed to do what melodrama absolutely must: provoke sympathy and agitate the emotions.
Certainly, Marta Kaczmarek is irresistible as Madame Raquin, the mother of the murdered man. She is the only one who really fills her role, who understands instinctively what melodrama should be, how bright and energetic, mannered but rapid, always brimming with feeling. The play’s most thrilling turn is her sudden transformation from fussy matriarch into wheelchair-bound Nemesis. There aren’t too many moments like that.
Elizabeth Nabben is fun as Thérèse, and marks her part with a wonderful assortment of sly and malicious looks, but neither she nor Aaron Walton as her lover are consistently brutish, with all the uninhibited passion that implies. That said, in the murder scene, the high point of the first act, both are terrifying, while Paul Blenheim, in his final moments as the doomed husband, does at last get beyond cartoon wimpishness.
Indeed, everyone is good to point, but they all tend toward caricature. It’s a giggly sort of production, and it shouldn’t be, and I don’t think it’s meant to be. Although there’s a lot of obvious comedy — including a very good running bit with the women’s oversized hoop skirts — the overall tone is of high or accidental camp. The final crisis, for instance, is an unfortunate farce. No doubt, one could replot Thérèse Raquin as a kind of medieval grotesque, with death as a more-or-less humorous monstrosity, but with a script of this quality, surely the challenge for a director should be to wring tears of pity?
The presentation is charming, with a proscenium curtain of red velvet, excellent costumes and a convincingly cramped Parisian apartment with a few colourful surprises under the floorboards. Christopher De Groot provides an eerie live accompaniment, full of unstable little themes, an appropriate melos to this sort of drama.
But there isn’t enough imagination or daring in the direction, nothing to shock, or point the way past charm into pathos. And so the melodrama settles naturally into charade, the spiders and their bottle.
Thérèse Raquin is a fascinating literary object. There have been many, many adaptations, for every medium. It will continue to haunt us. And this is an adaptation that could stand on any stage in the world. But I wonder if Abrahams has lived with it too long?
Of course, Abrahams is a fine director, but does this production pulse with a live interrogation? The script was originally commissioned by the MTC almost three years ago, and it’s unfortunate that they never went ahead and programmed it. Not only is this the kind theatre which benefits from a big production budget, as most historical dramas do, but Abrahams might have been made to hand over his baby to a someone willing to challenge both the audience and the author.