Finborough Theatre, transferring to the Park Theatre
30 March 2014
Émile Zola’s erotically charged and languid literary masterpiece, Thérèse Raquin, seems an unlikely subject for a musical. But then you might say that about the tale of Sweeney Todd, or the backstory to the Wizard of Oz, or a Victor Hugo tome. The truth is that if you find the correct form, and, crucially, a composer in tune with the work, anything can be a musical.
Now playing at the Finborough Theatre is a “radical adaptation” of Zola’s work by Nona Shepphard, with music by Craig Adams. It’s a masterpiece.
Although Zola was a proponent of naturalism in literature and theatre, the approach here is not entirely that of naturalism, which is not to say that the performances are not seeking truth and in-the-moment honesty. The novel’s action is truncated and condensed, wisely, and a three woman chorus is used to look into the unrevealed thoughts of Raquin. Like a Greek chorus, the ensemble here watch, comment and note the action, the thoughts, the situations of the four main characters. Many times the characters sing directly to the audience, but this serves merely to heighten the effect of the sections where the characters sing to each other.
There are many extremely effective touches: it starts with some French and then morphs into English; the opening sequence highlights the objective medical dissection of what happens as well as the intense focus on inner emotions and psychology; the opening tableau instantly establishes the dark tone of the piece while at the same time neatly creates a false impression to those who don’t know the plot; Madame’s fur is neatly converted into her beloved cat and takes on a life of its own; Thérèse does not utter a sound for what seems like ages, but when she does it is a desperate, wild animal, orgasmic shriek of release which leaves no doubt about what is happening in the darkness
The music is complex and difficult, but utterly beguiling. James Simpson does a remarkable job bringing the score to life on the piano but despite his formidable keyboard skills it is impossible not to yearn for an orchestration that involves, at least, strings, percussion and reeds. This is a score that would bloom and grow with a gifted orchestrator.
More Stravinsky than Sondheim, more Guettel than Gershwin, more Rutherford than Rodgers, more Berlioz than Berlin, the music here is not for those who want musicals they can hum on the tube home. Nor is it for those who want big production numbers with tapping and pizazz.
No. The purpose of the score here is entirely focussed on illuminating the plot and characters, building mood, tension and eroticism, propelling and giving life to the central characters. And it does this remarkably skilfully, whether through the Highly Respectable Orgy sequences (involving dominoes, tea and gossip), or Sweet Perfume of Violets (Laurent’s descent into madness amongst the bodies in the morgue) or If I Had Known (Thérèse and Laurent in their final lament) or any number of remarkable musical moments.
It helps that the gifted ensemble can handle and deliver the score – with passion, great tone and an excellent ear for pitch and unexpected harmonies and modulations. They are a joy to listen to even if the music is not always joyful.
Julie Atherton is a potent performer but I have never seen her as good, as completely consumed in a role, as she is here as Thérèse. The brooding intensity she brings to the first third of the play, when she speaks not a sound, is remarkable and her sense of being trapped and desperately unhappy is palpable. Her lust for Laurent, her disgust for Camille, her fear of and irritation with Madame – all are simultaneously conveyed with urgent ease. The look on her face when she first catches sight of Laurent tells you exactly what is going to happen. The contrast between her distress before her union with Laurent and her all-consuming happiness after it is mesmerising. She does not set a foot wrong here and she sings with a clarity and breadth of range that is genuinely thrilling.
Ben Lewis’s physically superb and vocally magnificent Laurent matches Atherton’s intensity and commitment to the piece. He, too, is silent and scowling for some time and his introduction, through Camille, gives him time to create a rich characterisation. His scenes with Atherton are magical, but so too is his solo when he searches the morgue for Camille’s body. There is complete commitment throughout: to the violence, the sex, the haunting by Camille, the descent into wanton abandon and then the final decisive duet which ends their affair. Lewis is an outstanding leading man and here he is pushed to his limits, dramatically and vocally, and emerges triumphant.
As the insufferable wimp and snivelling bully that is Camille, Jeremy Legat is deliciously vile. Prissy and snobbish, he manages to bring life to this most tiresome of characters, even a sliver of empathy. He sings well and is especially impressive in his appearances after his drowning: it is hard to make ghostly appearances shocking or real, but Legat pulls it off here. And his wonderful relationship with his mother, Madame, is beautifully detailed and completely believable.
Tara Hugo has no difficulty in playing the extremes which comprise Madame: her rigid formality; her unyielding adoration for Camille; her superiority and condescension to everyone except Camille; her love for her cat; her gleeful gossiping with her dominoes troupe; her devastation at the loss of Camille; her paralysation when she learns the truth; the venom in her eyes as she balefully glares at those who stole her happiness. She plays the role with relish, style and terrific skill. But, vocally, she is not up to extreme demands of the role and although this does not undermine the show, nor does it allow the part to soar as it might.
The Finborough is a tiny space but Laura Cordery’s clever and inventive set wastes no space and is remarkably effective in establishing the period, the place and the sense of intense emotional focus that Zola’s work thrives in. (I loved the window pane that became an artist’s stand.) Neil Fraser’s lighting is also superb and immeasurably adds to the experience.
Nona Shepphard’s achievement here is really quite astonishing: this is a sensational premiere of a new work. Why it is not playing at the National is one of life’s mysteries.