Mounting a French classic onto the stage written by the father of naturalism, Emile Zola, brings many challenges to a theatre company but Dirty Pretty Theatre at Theatre Works presents a crystal clear evocation of the novel and delivers its essence with an enormous amount of creativity and passion. The story of a forbidden love affair between a man’s wife and his childhood friend and their very dark quest for this love affair to succeed, is a harrowing one.

Gary Abrahams, in his adaptation of Zola’s seminal novel, effectively takes us through Laurent (Aaron Walton) and Therese’s (Elizabeth Nabben) brutal affair. Abrahams selects the scenes from the novel cleverly, giving the audience the full force of the deception, cruelty and ugliness of the story. Nabben’s performance captures Therese’s disturbed mental state and her love scenes with Walton are perfectly difficult to watch as she displays Therese’s manic mind and hunger for something other that what her life has served up so far. The two actors create the necessary unbridled passion and desperation for each other without ever over acting. Laurent’s sobbing in the final scene was beautifully performed, Walton depicting the truly broken man. Laurent’s first shocking kiss and Therese’s subsequent falling to her knees was well directed and captures the point when the two cross over into the dangerous waters.

And the dangerous water is depicted stunningly simply by some excellent stagecraft for the murder scene. This scene delivered the right kind of suspense and Jacob Battista’s innovative set here is to be applauded. It is amazing what a bit of dry ice and a paddle can evoke when the acting is so good. Battista’s rendering of the Parisian flat with its damp looking corners, its cold bedroom and well-placed doors for the clandestine exits, evokes the era so well. The wonderful glass wall and ceiling begs the outside world to peer into the flat and perhaps stop the ugliness from occurring. Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting design depicts the flawed characters by giving us faces in half-light and wonderful shadows. Sfetkidis engenders the right kind of eeriness and foreboding – nothing was going to end well with this story.

The extremely strange domestic bubble of the Raquins is pierced by the outside world every Thursday night by the regular visitors Michaud (Rhys McConnochie), Grivet (Oliver Coleman) and Suzanne (Edwina Samuels). McConnochie plays a masterful Michaud, with his soothing voice and his pompous manner; his naturalistic acting endears us to Michaud. The delicious dramatic irony of certain scenes was all the more poignant by McConnochie’s pacing within the scene and his expressive face. Coleman, along with Samuels, was the much-needed comic relief and both were able to render their personal worlds with skill and humour and provide the sharp contrast to the Raquins.

Marta Kaczmarek’s Madame Raquin is pivotal to the story and Kaczmarek’s energy on stage is boundless even when she is ‘still as a statue’ in the final scenes. Her almost inaudible whimpering was haunting and evokes the ugly darkness that envelops the Raquin household. Her love for her son Camille (Paul Blenheim) earlier on in the play bordered on the melodramatic and this served to set up the tragedy of what was to become later on. Blenheim’s Camille was an excellent mix of the vulnerable kitten, the narcissistic menace, the tiresome bore and a man determined to find contentment in his life. 

Another wonderful aspect of this production was the live music. Christopher De Groot accompanied the action of the play by playing the piano and other percussive instruments. His compositions really assist in capturing the end of the 19th century era, as do the elaborate costume design by Chloe Greaves.

In his director’s notes, Abrahams asserts that this production is an unapologetic melodrama. For me, the play is most engaging when the volume of melodrama is turned down and the sheer realist brutality of the action is the focus as the audience is confronted with themes such as how humans strive to better their lives and how callous they can become in order to achieve this. Perhaps the balance between the melodrama and naturalism could have been more finely tuned at certain times throughout the play.

This is a fine production that pleases on so many levels. It is a credit to this theatre company that their ambitious project is so well executed.