The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Autumn-Winter 2006
Lovers murder the woman's husband but then find themselves trapped in the combination of guilt and recrimination that is each other's hated company.
160 years ago Emile Zola's novel was shocking in its depiction of immorality and its effects. Today its plot and characters feel like grist for a not-particularly-inventive soap opera.
This National Theatre production, adapted by Nicholas Wright from Zola's own 1873 dramatisation of his novel, does little to rise above the seen-it-all-before feel of its material.
Neither director Marianne Elliott nor her cast seem able to find anything fresh in the play or to invigorate it sufficiently to make it feel powerful even if familiar.
Almost as if admitting defeat, Elliott throws in every stylistic and theatrical trick she can to liven things up. Though the play is essentially realistic in mode, there are abrupt and almost random sequences of slow motion, mime, cinematic fade-ins and -outs, and the subjective use of offstage voices and sounds.
One brief nightmare moment takes us into the world of German Expressionist silent film, while a sleepless night is evoked by a choreographed sequence that seems to go on forever.
All this in the service of a tale that is never developed much deeper than that one sentence summary I began with.
As Therese, Charlotte Emmerson is given nothing to do but mope around in a near-catatonic funk for two-thirds of the play, and then find various ways of becoming hysterical for the rest.
Ben Daniels as her lover is given a more interesting journey, from surreptitious lover to guilt-ridden coward to victim of suicidal despair. We may have trouble believing they're all the same man, but each is convincing at the moment.
Patrick Kennedy has little to do (and is killed off early) as the amiable but dull husband. As a family friend Michael Culkin gives a poor imitation of Michael Gambon; as Therese's mother-in-law Judy Parfitt gives a somewhat better one of Margaret Tyzack.
The woman next to me spent the interval praising Zola's novel, assuring all who would listen that it has all the sustained atmosphere and psychological depth this dramatisation lacks. Perhaps an evening reading the book will be more profitable than sitting in the theatre.
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