You go into Thérèse Raquin expecting one kind of production. You end up with something else entirely. Emile Zola's 1861 novel is considered one of the first examples of naturalism in art, concerned with capturing temperaments, not character. His own adaptation of the novel into a play reads dryly (though that may be more the fault of the translation then the source). So I went in expecting a rather trying couple of hours in the theatre. I couldn't have been more wrong.
For what adapter Helen Edmundson and director Jonathan Munby have done is to strip the work away from the realism of observing life and in a theatrical language still explore those temperatments of the characters on stage. It is a superb piece of work from both of them; funny, charged with erotic fissure and has a somewhat unexpected spine tingling eeriness to the mental disintegration of the central pair in the second half. It is all played with a fluidity and a sense of operatic scale that by the time it hits its climax has wrung its audience out. It took a couple of minutes after the curtain went down to find the words to describe what I'd seen.
Alison Steadman is the name which will encourage people to buy seats and she catches both the interfering but good natured mother in law to Thérèse (Pippa Nixon) alongside the stroke inflicted distress which ultimately befalls her. She is one of a number of strong supporting performances in the piece; which includes Hugh Skinner's angry and arrogant mothers boy Camille, Keiran Bew's charm personified Laurent (is there a better actor then Bew to convey this so convincingly-his Edmund in King Lear at the Almeida had many of the same qualities) and Desmond Barrit and Michael Mears as the dinner table guest.
Nixon has every right to claim to be the most exciting stage actor of her generation after barnstorming work at the RSC, but Thérèse is a part that doesn't showcase her strongest qualities. She is at her best when she abandons decorum and unleashes her wild side but there is not enough of that here. When she has the chance, as when she embraces her carnal desires or in a thrilling argument that could end deadly the hairs rise. But meek- which she is required to show for a majority of the production-doesn't suit her energy and so we don't believe it. Though her Thérèse is drawn from a different vein then the other characters (she speaks a lot of blank verse whilst the others stick to prose) she is overshadowed by Bew's charismatic turn as her lover and Mumby's highly theatrical production.
It is proving to be quite the summer of high quality work for Bath Theatre Royal. The most risky of the productions to play there this year may also prove to be the most successful. A triumph!