12 November 2006

Thérèse Raquin – National Theatre, Friday 10th November 2006

Curtain up. Scene – a large, gloomy apartment above a shop, Paris, sometime in the very early 20th century. 2 chairs, an artists easel, a small round dining table, a mantle mirror. Four people on stage – a young man (seated), dressed in a black suit and high collared shirt, a young woman (seated in an attitude of deepest boredom) in a long white dress, an elderly woman dressed in dark grey, a middle-aged man (standing at the easel) in brown corduroy trousers, white shirt and waistcoat. “Oh lord”, thought I, “this looks like its going to be grim”. Well, in a way I was right (the play is not the jolliest one I have ever seen, although there were a few laughs here and there), and in another way I was wrong.

Told simply, the eponymous Thérèse Raquin is unhappily married. She and her lover, whom she pretends to despise for the sake of appearance, plot to kill the husband so that they can marry and shag like bunnies under mother-in-law’s nose. Husband is drowned in a boating “accident”, Thérèse and lover marry but find that guilt pursues them from beyond the grave and they slowly go mad. Mother in law discovers their plot, has a stroke. Thérèse and lover commit suicide. Subplot – female friend deliberately invents fascinating lover, weaves complicated stories about same, finally admits that he is merely a figment of her imaginings. So, as I said, not the jolliest evening ahead. But for some reason the story and the predicaments of the characters caught my imagination and I actually found myself rather enjoying the subtle twists of the plot. It was a shame that the second act rather failed to live up to what the first act promised – I fully expected wheelchair bound mother-in-law to be rather nastily done in – she is, after all, the only other person alive who knows of the couple’s guilt, and being somewhat of an afficianado of those wonderful black and white films from the 40 and 50s like “Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte” where the heroine is either blind, deaf, dumb, wheelchair bound or all four, thought I could see a particular plot device rearing its head. But no – mother-in-law nearly manages to unmask the gruesome details but fails, having her ultimate revenge in the sight of the two culprits going slowly mad and finally drinking poisoned wine.

Tautly directed, there were some very nice moments of stagecraft in this production. Thérèse’s long, slow strip wash in an alcove (director having gone for a Degas moment), over which was played a haunting French song, intercut with voice overs and sound effects representing the murder of the hapless husband on the boating lake was very clever, and also cleverly represented time passing, enabling Thérèse to change from a white frock to Widow’s Weeds. The very unexpected segment in Act II in which the apartment wall split open to reveal the love interest staggering down a rainsoaked alleyway, racked with guilt, was unexpected and incredibly clever. And it was a very clever stroke to have the husband’s portrait malevolently glaring down – firstly from the wall of the main room, then from the mother’s bedroom) on the goings on after his death (shades of a fantastic production of “Dangerous Corner” I saw many years ago). The one thing I didn’t like was the “photograph” effects – lights up, murderer and murderess strike pose indicated guilt/decline into madness, lights down, actors change position, lights up again…… as this jarred with the style of the rest of the production. Lighting was very effective, although the light from the open fire in Act II was wrongly sourced and was flat, rather than flickering, which would have added another dimension of chill.

Good strong acting all round from the small cast – particularly from Judy Parfitt as Madame Raquin. I initially found her rather shrill and small voiced, and irritating in the manner of the actress who played Ronnie Corbett’s mother in “Sorry”. But, as she fleshed out her character, I thought “Aha! She’s MEANT to be shrill and irritating!” And it can’t be easy to play a stroke victim for an entire act, wheelchair bound and communicating only in grunts. But she held the entire stage with the expressions of malevolence and hatred shining out from her eyes. Mark Hadfield was very good as the set-in-his-ways friend, doomed to spend every Thursday night playing dominoes with his neighbours.

A couple of small gripes – during the scene in which Thérèse is washing and changing her dress, the rest of the stage is in darkness, the lights having gone down on the rest of the cast playing dominoes at the dining table. Please, Stage Manager, devise a way for the dominoes to be removed from the table without clattering as this completely spoils the effect of the dimly lit bathing scene going on at the back of the stage. And Wardrobe Manager – when a character clearly says to another that she is having trouble undoing the hooks and eyes on the back of her dress, make sure that the dress actually HAS hooks and eyes rather than a zip!

An interesting evening, not what I expected at all.

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