by Emile Zola
Adapted by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Jonathan Munby
Theatre Royal, Bath
Wednesday 6th July 2014, 14.30 matinee
Alison Steadman as Madame Rquin
Pippa Nixon as Therese Raquin
Hugh Skinner as Camille
Kieran Bew as Lauren
Michael Mears as Grivet
Desmond Barrit as Superintendent Michaud
Charlotte Mills as Suzanna
Two of our favourite actresses: Alison Steadman (see Blithe Spirit) and Pippa Nixon (see As You Like It, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The City Madam, Cardenio). Bath’s summer season is one of the things we wait for every year, though this year we’re down to two instead of four productions. We wanted to leave some space in the summer, and the RSC, Chichester and Globe brochures got in first.
Pippa Nixon & Alison Steadman
The novel was written in 1867, and Zola adapted it for the stage himself in 1873. This version says “adapted from the novel.” The programme notes that Helen Edmundson ignored Zola’s stage play and wrote from scratch, as theatrical possibilities are so different now.
I don’t know what is about the “naturalists” or “realists” in the novel and intrigue, lust, suicide, guilt and murder, but you can compare Thérèse Raquin and Frank Norris’s McTeague, both held up as examples of naturalism. How naturalistic? Well, try a manifested ghost right through act two. That’s what I call realism. At one time I had wanted to do a research degree on the American realists. I’m glad I abandoned it. It would have meant reading lots of Zola, who they so admired.
I had never seen the play, but I would have expected melodrama, based on the plot. Zola set out not to show individual character, but to illustrate Galen’s four temperaments: Thérèse is melancholic, Lauren is Sanguine, Madame Raquin is choleric and Camille is phlegmatic. I don’t think that carries over into this adaptation, which is a good thing.
Julian Barnes’ Guardian review of the 2006 National Theatre production (of a different adaptation) is essential reading on the novel, Zola’s own adaptation and subsequent adaptation. It is linked HERE.
The opening of the play
I would rate it as a new play by Helen Edmundson, retelling Zola’s story. The two acts are very different. Helen Edmundson squeezed a lot of humour into the story. The domino-playing family friends are a lovely trio: the tall, thin lugubrious Grivet, the slightly paws-on-females Superintendent and his truculent daughter, Suzanne. Full of comedy potential. Set pieces such as the murder of Camille on the river are excellent.
Pippa Nixon has the title role as Thérèse, the orphaned girl sent to her aunt aged two. Illegitimate daughter of an exotic Algerian woman and a sea captain. It’s a fascinating part. She’s near speechless for a third of the play, then burning with lust for Laurent, then wracked with guilt and haunted by her murdered husband’s ghost. Zola talked of Laurent and Thérèse as mechanical people, and the production puts her in a marionette role, constantly being dressed and undressed and placed and carried into position by the ‘ensemble’. The four members of the ensemble are the best thing in the play, dressing her, moving her, changing scenery, moving beds … all with elegant choreographed dance moves. A chorus of scene changers and dressers. While Zola talked about his characters as “brutes” they are not in Helen Edmundson’s version. Therese is shown treated as a marionette because she’s powerless. We felt all the characters were richer than descriptions of the originals. The touches of humour help. Pippa Nixon is a sublime actress, commanding the stage just as easily with her early silence as with her later expressed guilt and horror. We sympathize with her.
Alison Steadman is the aunt, and the protective mother of Camille, who she marries off to Thérèse, his first cousin in an unconsummated marriage. Madame Raquin is very funny for two thirds of the play, then she has a stroke on hearing of Laurent and Thérèse’s passionate affair and murder of Camille. Thereafter she is mute, in a wheelchair, paralysed. We both swore that she communicated her thoughts to the entire theatre whilst frozen solid for a good twenty minutes. Try doing that. Just think about doing that.
Hugh Skinner’s Camille is a hilarious inept and impotent mummy’s boy but then has to switch to a tatty mute ghost in part two. You can see why Thérèse would have wanted to get it on with the earthy peasant, Laurent, and let’s add that the graphic sex scenes are a choreographed sexual dance.
I will be picky about the plot of the adaptation. It missed Laurent’s motivation that screwing a friend’s wife was cheaper and healthier than screwing prostitutes. Money was a major Zola theme. Gone. Also, late on, Laurent beats Thérèse, resulting in a miscarriage. BUT …… nine months had passed between the murder of Camille, and Laurent and Thérèses marriage, and we are led to believe that they feel so guilty they can’t have sex. But actually they must have done. They all originate from the same village, but only Laurent has a Northern English accent.
The music and sound effects throughout were stunning too, as was the highly mobile but blank silvery-green set. Music is extremely important.
Bath and Chichester summer seasons are important productions, and a privilege to see as they are such short runs, although as much work goes in as a West End / RSC / Globe / NT play on a three month run. This one has just two and a half weeks in Bath, then by the look of it, just a week in Malvern and a week in Cambridge. As with King Lear at Bath last year, the production deserves a longer tour. A tip to anyone who wants to see it, we find last minute choices are eased if you seek (say) two individual seats rather than two together. Theatres often have odd ones dotted about even when virtually sold out.
It is an odd production for me. Acting? 5 star. Direction? 5 star. Adaptation? 5 star. Set design? Ditto. Music? Ditto. SFX and lighting? Ditto. But in the end it’s unsatisfying because basically Zola’s original story is overwrought, melodramatic and, to me, unnatural and unrealistic, especially for the “Master of Realism.” Yes, we liked everything about this accomplished and highly theatrical adaptation except Zola’s basic storyline. In spite of the murder, all that hand-wringing guilt, ghosts and angst, Thérèse Raquin is no Macbeth just as Zola is no Shakespeare.
Bath is still doing that daft and annoying single programme for five plays at £4. We’re only seeing two this season and would much prefer fuller individual programmes at £3 each. Everyone moans about them every summer. I know we’ll forget to take the Hay Fever programme with us in a couple of weeks’ time.