28 August 2014

Last chance: Thérèse Raquin

Thérèse Raquin
Dirty Pretty Theatre & Theatreworks
sometimes last week
to 30 August

Photo by Lachlan Woods

With a raised stage, red velvetish curtain and promise of an interval, Thérèse Raquin makes Theatre Works feel as old-school proscenium-arch (without the arch) theatre as it can. As the curtain opens, the sense of occasion and the mixed expectations of hooped-frock theatre are immediate.

Thérèse Raquin was the first major novel (1867) by the Paris-based Émile Zola. Zola later wrote a play version and the story has been adapted for many films. Gary Abrahams wrote and directed this adaption of the novel.

Not-long-gone-20 Thérèse (Elizabeth Nabben) is married to her sickly and self-obsessed cousin Camille (Paul Blenheim) after living with him and his aunt (Marta Kaczmarek) since she was a child. They've moved to Paris where old friends (Rhys McConnochie, Edwina Samuels and Oliver Coleman) are found and Camille's friend Laurent (Aaron Walton) becomes Thérèse's special friend. When social and economic circumstances don't allow you to flee, there's only one option for the lovers: kill Camille.

Very influenced by Darwin, Zola's called his writing Naturalism because it's about the control and impact of social and environmental conditions. He said he wrote about temperaments rather than characters and asks if his characters could really choose how they behave given their circumstances.

It's easy to see his stories as unearned and predictable melodrama but remember that when Zola wrote, this type of story was new; we seen it so many times since because these tipping-over-the-top stories reflect a truth that continues to connect.

What makes this production so watchable and enthralling is that Abrahams's writing and direction find the wafter-thin balance in tone that lets the characters be real and recognisable enough to make their own choices (sorry Zola) while still being caught in a world they can't escape from. If the tone slipped even a semi-tone the wrong way, it'd be too much melodrama or too much documentary re-inactment. (It's not really comparable, but it reminded me of the first season of Downton Abbey: pure soap but riveting.)

The note-perfect cast maintain Zola's goal of not making any character stand out and each approach their performance with enough of now and themselves to ensure that their stories feel as real as they can. They're not showing us 1860s Paris, they're taking us to an 1860's Paris that shares our knowledge and sensibilities.

All are supported by a design (Jacob Battista: set, Katie Sfetkidis: lighting) that create a claustrophobic Paris flat that feels both light and gloomy and transforms to a water-filled lake with a touch of simple genius. There's just enough room for Chloe Greaves's hooped skirts, which also ensure that we know it's a production about today. And all are led emotionally by live original music from Christopher De Groot.

Thérèse Raquin is big-story, big-skirted, historical naturalism that never feels caught in the conventions or expectations of big-story, big-skirted, historical naturalism. It finishes on Saturday.

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