Zola’s Thrse Raquin has its weaknesses as a piece of drama but Marianne Elliott’s new production at the National cannot be faulted. It’s a chilling and beautifully-acted thriller, which pushes the actors to emotional extremes. The staging is imaginative and inventive, full of meticulous detail, with terrific performances all round.
Thrse Raquin was Emile Zola’s first great success at the age of 27 and it stands alone from his great cycle of twenty novels known as Les Rougon-Macquart. At this early stage, he was already experimenting with a naturalistic style which explored the animal side of man’s nature. Nevertheless, it is a bit of a pot-boiler. Maybe he never quite shook off the need to shock and even his mature novels are tinged with a streak of sensationalism. Certainly, they all feature a heady mix of sex and violence, usually showing some innocent being horribly abused.
There are some parallels with Ibsen, both in the development of a naturalistic art and the reaction it evoked from the public. Like Ghosts, it was dragged through the mud by the critics, although Zola probably revelled in the notoriety a lot more than Ibsen did.
In this first great novel, the two leading protagonists, Thrse and Laurent, are forced into murder, which seems the only way out of an enforced and pointless marriage for a passionate woman and her hungry lover. They can’t pursue their love freely and disposing of the feeble husband seems the only way out.
Charlotte Emmerson’s Thrse is attractive and a little strange, seething with intensity and repressed passion. As her lover, the excellent Ben Daniels has obvious masculine charms lacking in her sickly husband. Their animal lust is very believable, although its consummation is continually frustrated, even when the obstacles have been removed.
Patrick Kennedy plays Camille perfectly as a garrulous mummy’s boy and Judy Parfitt as his mother displays all the experience of a long and distinguished career. She is mesmerising in her final scenes as the tortured stroke-bound wreck. Mark Hadfield’s minutely observed portrayal of the fussy office worker Grivet is very funny, and Michael Culkin as Michaud and Emma Lowndes his niece also provide excellent support.
Elliott brings tremendous theatrical flare to the staging. There’s a sensuous scene between the first two acts where Thrse silently washes herself and, in the second half, a long cinematic nightmare sequence depicting the mother of all bad nights. There’s much painterly detail throughout. Hildegard Bechtler’s dingy apartment and Neil Austin’s atmospheric lighting provide the backdrop for some stunning pictures, although at times, the Lyttelton space feels a little too large for this intimate breakdown of two people tearing each other apart.
Zola wrote the play version himself (here in an adaptation by Nicholas Wright) and to begin with it works very well. As it progresses, though, its origins as a novel become clear and, as it descends into melodrama, becomes increasingly difficult to act. While the inner workings of the mind can be explored in a book, they are much more difficult to show on stage, although Daniels and Emmerson do a magnificent job, calling on all their emotional reserves.
With the use of ghostly sounds and haunting live music (Olly Fox), an atmosphere of fear and imminent catastrophe is evoked as Thrse and Laurent stagger towards an inevitable end. If Thrse Raquin is ultimately not the greatest play ever written, this first-class production is well worth seeing for a remarkable display of professional skills which show the National Theatre at its best. You can see a trailer at the NT’s website.