In describing its adaptation of Thérèse Raquin as radical, Theatre Bench is actually showing a certain conformity to the author of this great and disturbing nineteenth century French novel. Like its author Emile Zola, the book was indeed viewed as radical and more when it was published in 1867. Now, in clutching the thing by its rough, passionate roots, Nona Shepphard’s re-working is following that lead with great fidelity.
Shocker though it was, Zola’s ghastly lust-story rapidly became a classic. Although it flouted European fiction’s trends of moralising and sentiment, its debunking of control and hypocrisy in the affairs of the heart and the bed was plainly slaking a great thirst.
Not that any of this makes the Park Theatre’s “radical” billing an empty one; here is a musical treatment which clothes the whole drama in a kind of declamatory nakedness, through which the main players are virtually flaunting their own transgressions. It is as if they are saying, with Zola: look, it’s not pretty, but it’s how it is; at least give us credit for that.
The ugly behaviour, if you’re not familiar with this much-adapted book, comes mainly from Thérèse herself, with massive help from her lover Laurent, who happens to have been her husband Camille’s childhood friend. But wait; what kind of marriage is this anyway? On the available evidence it has not been made in Heaven, but in the Hell of Madame Raquin’s possessive contriving. For the pair are cousins and have been raised by Mme R., their aunt, first as siblings, then as marital partners.
Dysfunctional, like most words from our modern range, doesn’t do justice to the menage. What Zola, and Shepphard are dealing with is the catastrophe of trying to lead your life through the attachments of others; of, basically, not letting go. As a parable of the older generation hanging on, as we might say, inappropriately, and passing the sickness of self-seeking love to the younger, it is terrible in its timelessness.
How to render all this in a musical. Well, first of all, that’s not exactly what it is. At first hearing, the mere conjunction of the words Thérèse Raquin and musical, does have a grim hilarity. No, maybe not as tasteless as, say, “Hitler, the Revue,” but getting on. Nor is it exactly a play-with-music, though there are elements of this too. This one’s a hybrid, with the strong sense of a chamber opera. Alongside the four central characters is an exceptionally versatile chorus/gallery, now backing up the soloists, now going their own sardonic way, now coming together again with rich broad harmonies as a kind of knowing commentariat. The result is a unit capable of picking up and bodying-out the interior torments of the arranged marriage, and the needy adultery. Shepphard, who also directs, has assembled a well-drilled cast of actors who can really sing – or are they singers who can really act? The compliment is that it’s hard to tell.
Others have tried turning Thérèse into an opera. There has also been a Broadway show called Thou Shalt Not, with music composed by Harry Connick Jr, to say nothing of a century’s worth of versions, from the silent Italian movie in 1915 to the 2009 Korean horror film Thirst. The only one I’ve caught was the Nicholas Wright adaptation at the National Theatre in 2006. The Park’s production is its equal for intensity, particularly in the presentation of Mme Raquin, clinging to power even through the debilitating effects of the stroke caused by Thérèse’s adultery. The difficult scene involving the two lovers’ murder of Camille is also well handled through the production’s confident mixing of physical enactment and sung narrative.
Tara Hugo is chilling as the aunt and Jeremy Legat pathetic, in a good way, as Camille. Julie Atherton moves Therese both tenderly and brutally through her episodes. She expects much from Laurent, and she gets it handsomely via Greg Barnett.
Compelling stuff, tried out before The Park at the even littler Finborough Theatre in Earls Court. It speaks in a language of melodic recitatif and plain dialogue rather than through showstoppers. This brings a welcome absence from the stop-and-start, clapping-and-silence world of The Big Musical. Continuity and concentration flourish in their absence, and in Laura Cordery’s crepuscular set. Very occasionally you hear the stirring of something that might be knowingly catchy; a hit even. Then it goes away and is carried off in the thick doomy flood of ensemble singing. Quite radical.
Review by Alan Franks
Plays until: 24th August
Pay What You Can Night: Tues 12th August
(In person at the box office from 6pm on the day only, subject to availability)
Performances Tues – Sat Evenings 19.30 Sat & Sun Matinees 15.00
Running Time Approx 2 hours (including interval)
Thursday 7th August 2014