There’s little the camera loves more than lust. Yearning glances and long, lingering looks charge up countless movies. But without close-ups, it’s extraordinarily hard to convey lust convincingly onstage, much less sustain it. But that’s exactly what Marianne Elliott achieves — and a great deal more besides — in her scalding, suspense-filled National Theater production of “Therese Raquin.”
The fervid passion and terror of Emile Zola’s original 1867 novel (and his own stage adaptation) has inspired theater artists from opera composer Tobias Picker to Susan Stroman, who ran afoul of it when she and Harry Connick Jr. turned it into the musical “Thou Shalt Not.” Small wonder. This dramatically compact tale is driven by a tight group of characters in a passion-fueled drama of repression and sexual combustion between a bored wife and her artist lover, and the terrifying ramifications of the murder they commit, only to be undone by guilt.
Poor relation Therese (Charlotte Emmerson), who grew up with her reproving aunt (Judy Parfitt), has been married off to sickly boyish cousin Camille (Patrick Kennedy). At the weekly game of dominos, the aunt expresses her disapproval at society. “Murderers walking in the streets, hale and hearty and living in clover.” Sooner rather than later, Therese and her lover Laurent (Ben Daniels) persuade themselves of the idea that, as Laurent puts it, “accidents do happen.” And they get away with it. What they didn’t bargain for are the life-wrecking after-effects, which bring them to suicide.
In what looks like contrary fashion, Elliott and her design team opt not for expected claustrophobia but wide open space defined by towering gray walls. Hildegard Bechtler’s superbly chilling set doesn’t have an obvious focal point. That adds to the sense of repetitive lives rattling away in the strikingly unadorned room above a Parisian haberdashery shop, complete with monumental fireplace and the top of a stairwell winding down beside barely seen, narrow rooms masked by folding doors.
Even more than is usual, everything is reliant upon the energy of the actors filling the space. And instead of the easy option of heating things up with the actors pawing each other, for most of the evening Elliott signals their passion by maintaining distance between them as they plot and prowl around each other.
Emmerson delivers her most controlled performance to date as headstrong, manipulative Therese, whose desire and resentment is shut away behind an imperious facade of extreme hauteur and boredom. Her entire physicality changes the deeper she falls into the trap of her own making.
Daniels matches her glance for glance. Appearing suddenly from a hidden door in the set, his ravishing of Emmerson has an electric erotic charge. Like Emmerson, he too grows increasingly unchained as he mentally slides down into the pit.
What glues them into the scenario is Elliott’s exacting control of visual and aural detail. Neil Austin shoots chilly light through the tiny high windows but then, in painterly fashion, adds what feels, impossibly, like shades of gray. As the story darkens, he opts for an ever stronger palette, with Laurent’s dark shadow appearing up the stairs against fierce orange.
Almost the entire evening is underscored by Olly Fox and sound designer Christopher Shutt, whose superbly effective soundscape hovers between ominous, shifting sounds of threat and doom and purer music for three strings, often amplified, plus the insinuating woody tone of the clarinet. Elliott moves the score from background to foreground whenever she wants to underline a plot development or build tension.
Indeed, there are times when the production moves closer to dance. As the guilty lovers run out of recriminations, their words desert them and aud watches the death throes of their relationship with mounting horror. The actors are caught in snapshot poses of pain, self-abasement, rage, distressed sex, interrupted violence, all accompanied by the sawing, passionate low string music. Elliott never allows these passages to outstay their welcome.
What’s startling about Nicholas Wright’s adaptation (written for a 1990 production) is how much it leaves out. Camille’s death — the two lovers have drowned him on a river excursion — is not shown, but we slowly gather that it has happened in an extended sequence between scenes. Therese kneels in a pool of light in a corridor, washing her upper body like a woman from a Degas painting. She then dresses in black, signaling her counterfeit mourning.
Most productions dramatize the guilt that paralyzes Therese and Laurent by opting to show the ghost of Camille, who haunts their every moment. Elliott, however, makes her characters hear the highly illustrative music instead. Not only does that solve the problem of cliched ghost effects, it keeps auds fixed on what is happening within the characters. This is gripping psychological, not supernatural, hell.
As a result, the director builds up a tremendous coup de theatre, as when the room gapes shockingly open to reveal Laurent shaking in anguish against a starkly lit street wall.
All the performances are in harmony with Elliott’s vision. Mark Hadfield’s obsessive-compulsive Grivet and Michael Culkin’s self-important Michaud are both precisely drawn yet fully three-dimensional. Parfitt allows her Madame Raquin to chart a journey from scold to pragmatic matchmaker, her teetering body appearing to be led by the brooch pinned primly at her throat. Her final lurch from sympathetic prisoner of her own beliefs to a woman struck helplessly dumb when she discovers the horrific crime is properly appalling.
Daniels is a virile man in comparison with Kennedy’s beautifully sympathetic yet still patronizing Camille. He’s also the one who signals the production’s most audacious touch — its comedy.
Having disappeared down to the shop below to collect chairs, Camille calls up, asking what Laurent is doing. “Making love to your wife,” he replies. The double-bluff raises a big laugh. A lesser production wouldn’t risk breaking the crucial tension, but a production as rich and strong as this is enhanced, and encapsulated, by such directorial flair.