There were two outstanding productions of Emile Zola’s play Therese Raquin (which he adapted from his 1867 novel) 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 that began in the Leicester Haymarket studio and came to the Young Vic.
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.
The cramped Parisian living quarters where “everything is piled up on each other” above the downstairs haberdashery shop is in fact a vast and roomy grey mausoleum, but designer Hildegard Bechtler had to make this choice to fill the Lyttelton stage. The scenes are revealed behind a thin black gauze curtain. The bedroom finally swamps the sitting room.
The year’s break between the crime and the onset of punishment is represented by Charlotte Emmerson as Therese sensuously washing her torso in a small steel bath. The action throughout is accompanied by the live (off-stage) music of Olly Fox conjuring city sounds, songs of lost childhood (Therese and Laurent are in fact cousins who grew up together) and the pulsing heartbeat of dangerous emotion.
From the first scene, where Laurent (Ben Daniels) is painting a portrait of his old friend, Therese’s chattering, hypochondriac husband Camille (Patrick Kennedy), you sense a seething, nailed-down sexuality in Emmerson’s immobile, clenched expression. Around her, Judy Parfitt’s fussing old aunt (Camille’s mother) and the domino-playing visitors are like unreal ghosts in their banal social chatter and humdrum routines.
She and Laurent snatch their moments secretly. A look. A minute. An hour. The consequence of their own eventual marriage – ironically “suggested” by the aunt and friends – is the realisation that it was the secrecy that counted in their union. The forbidden fruit turns out to be poisoned. Laurent, haunted by Camille’s face in everything he paints, becomes a nightmarish domestic replica of the victim.
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 – he built like a barn door, all earth and smouldering fire; she, achingly beautiful with high cheekbones and heaving chest – draw the full arc of illicit lust crumbling to despair and, in death, the peace of childhood. A lullaby is heard. The stage fills with sunlight.
Judy Parfitt is magnificent as the aunt, collapsing into catatonic stupor at the first hint of truth and exhaling an inaudible jabber in her wheelchair through the last scene. 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.