Marianne Elliott directs Ben Daniels and Charlotte Emmerson in Nicholas Wright’s version of Emile Zola’s 19th-century moral thriller Thérèse Raquin, which opened on Monday (13 November 2006, previews from 4 November) at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre (See News, 21 Aug 2006).

Stifled by an oppressive mother-in-law and a sickly husband, Thérèse Raquin falls passionately for another man. Their feverish affair drives the lovers to an act of terrible desperation, which catapults them headlong into a world more claustrophobic than the one they sought to destroy. The production continues in rep in the NT Lyttelton until 21 February 2007.

Some first night critics were underwhelmed by the power of the stage production compared to Zola’s original 1867 novel and divided about the merits of the performances of the two leads. However, they were impressed by many of Elliott’s inspired directorial touches and the performances, including the supporting cast, and none could deny the intrigue of the plot.

  • Michael Coveney on (4 stars) - “There were two outstanding productions of Emile Zola’s play in the early 1990s: an erotic, supercharged but totally naturalistic tale of a relationship based on lust and lost in murder at the Minerva, Chichester; and an expressionistic, water-drenched laboratory experiment. Marianne Elliott’s remarkable revival combines the best of both those worlds, using the fleet translation Nicholas Wright provided for the first: the tensions of a moral thriller in which Therese and her lover, the painter Laurent, murder her husband on a boating trip, are at first zipped up in sombre, 19th century restraint; but they break loose in a strange, hallucinatory sequence of anguished bed-time tableaux where guilt, anger and frustration have replaced sex and sensuality. Zola’s genius in writing this is given a horrifying dimension in the theatre, so the couple are like the Macbeths must have been in their intimacy on the murder trail. Ben Daniels and Charlotte Emmerson… draw the full arc of illicit lust crumbling to despair and, in death, the peace of childhood. Judy Parfitt is magnificent as the aunt…. The neighbours, too, are well cast: Mark Hadfield is a very funny, anally meticulous office clerk, while Michael Culkin as the retired police inspector, and Emma Lowndes as his niece, flesh out the details of ordinary, respectable living beyond this tragic chamber.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “Marianne Elliott, the National's ascending directorial star, has cut a startling swathe through the murky, murderous world of Emile Zola's novel…. Elliott's production… cuts free of realism's bonds and boldly conjures up a world of spectacular expressionism…. The scene is a domestic summer evening, but instead it seems like four o'clock in a dark night of the soul…. Mark Hadfield's obsessive-compulsive office worker… and Michael Culkin's retired police inspector… together with Patrick Kennedy's vacuously chattering Camille and Judy Parfitt, in dominating form as his egotistical and finally devastated mother… send lovely shafts of realistic and satirical comedy into the gloomy air. The secret, frustrated lovers, though, exist in their own stylised world. Charlotte Emerson's Thérèse, ironically dressed in white, adopts a stiff walk, sits bent forward as if troubled by severe indigestion. She and Ben Daniels' statuesque Laurent stand tense on either side of a door, advertising their alienation. Left alone, they fall groping, grasping and kissing while Thérèse spouts passionate Barbara-Cartlandese. However, Emerson and Daniels, for all their writhings and verbal effusions, ultimately seem no more aroused or ardent than mis-mated pandas…. Elliott brilliantly puts on a show. I doubt it's altogether right for Thérèse Raquin.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (3 stars) – “Everything is grey in the Paris flat where Nicholas Wright’s adaptation is set, from the walls and light to the inhabitants and visitors. Camille Raquin, the title-character’s husband, is right to call the place a grave. It’s too vaulty and therefore insufficiently claustrophobic, but it’s boring verging on deathly. But that was Zola’s view of petit-bourgeois life, and there’s not much that Elliott can do to relieve the drabness except ask her performers to inject a little humour into it. Patrick Kennedy’s Camille, a mother’s boy given to nerdish gurgles of laughter, and Mark Hadfield, his most doltishly insensitive friend, do just that. But the more ordinary the household seems, the more impact the extraordinary will have. And so it proves when passion, adultery and murder enter the equation…. In brief flashes of stage light, they mime sleeplessness, bad dreams and other Macbeth syndrome symptoms…. The denouement has the tension and power that the opening has lacked…. It’s conscience that finally destroys Thérèse and Laurent. The result? A play that, far from being the scientific case-study Zola wanted, is as grimly moral a warning against extramarital hanky-panky as any ever written.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (3 stars) – “Camille, the betrayed, blind husband, unwittingly cracks an excellent, Pooterish joke about his friend's attentions to his wife, but the line (and Patrick Kennedy's sprightly performance) make the whining, babyish man of the novel seem homely, almost appealing. The dense, fussy bureaucrat is played by Mark Hadfield with intelligent restraint, but given so much comic business that he takes over any scene in which he appears. The majestic Judy Parfitt is warm and endearing as Camille's doting mother, but this brisk, gracious matron has little in common with Zola's slow but calculating French countrywoman. Much the greatest problems here, though, are the shape of the play and the casting of the main characters…. Charlotte Emmerson is pinched, dazed, and plodding throughout, with a tight, shallow voice that hardly conveys decades of repressed passion…. Nor is Ben Daniels' suave Laurent at all like the clumsy, impressionable farmer's son of the novel…. Too much of the play is then devoted to the couple's disgust, and too much of that is like common domestic bickering. The impression is of a story so adapted to contemporary, local taste that its odd, disturbing flavour has been adapted out of it. This Thérèse Raquin is easy to swallow, but an hour later you're hungry for a real play.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “I made up my mind to skim a few chapters… to get the flavour of Zola's notorious early novel, which was denounced by the critics on first publication…. But as anyone will know who has picked up this astonishing work, it is almost impossible to put down. The French author's frank and erotic description of an illicit affair, followed by the murder of the adulterous heroine's husband and the guilt and remorse that follow, is fiction at its most addictive, the novelistic equivalent of crack cocaine. You simply can't stop until you've finished, or at least I couldn't. The result of my binge reading was that Marianne Elliott's production, though often impressive, intelligent and well acted, seemed like a dim shadow of the thrilling, lurid images already floating around inside my head…. What we get instead is a stagy Gothic melodrama…. The physical encounters between Charlotte Emmerson, normally superb at stage sensuality, as Thérèse and Ben Daniels as her furtive, ferrety lover are disappointingly perfunctory – little more than a quick grope, in fact. There's something disastrously missing in the chemistry between these actors, not only when it comes to lust but in their subsequent hatred, and it seriously diminishes the play's potential impact.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell