Thérèse Raquin, Lyttelton Theatre, London

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Desperate 19th-Century Housewives: it’s good to pay respect to the great precursors of today’s popular heroines. Sometimes I imagine Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina all living on the same street, swapping recipes and guilty secrets.

Thérèse’s is the guiltiest. In the new National Theatre adaptation we never see her lover Laurent murdering her husband Camille while she watches. Instead, the whole play occurs at home, and the point is that, here, nothing happens. Thérèse’s life with Camille, his mother Mme Raquin and their narrow circle of friends is one of routine and ennui.

Nicholas Wright, the adaptor, has made it nicely ridiculous. Everything save the secret adultery seems believably pointless and absurd. Life after the murder at first seems virtually unchanged, so we take moments to realise Camille is dead, and minutes to discover a year has passed. Once the widowed Thérèse has been married to Laurent, however, guilt transforms the realistic interior into a series of scenes of speechless angst and torment.

Hildegard Bechtler’s designs have spread Zola’s little apartment across the broad Lyttelton stage with a painterly sense, and Neil Austin’s lighting subtly catches the changes of daylight, lamplight and surreal conscience.

It’s all dully interesting and admirably flat. Marianne Elliott has proved to be a brilliant and stylish director of plays and everything here reflects her virtues without making the dark core of the play absorbing. The depiction of Thérèse’s and Laurent’s guilt-ridden wedding night and married life in terms of silent tableaux vivants and vignettes feels like stereotypical expressionism. Ben Daniels brings his big-puppy earnest enthusiasm to Laurent without persuading me he has a jot of the character’s peasant force. Charlotte Emmerson is picture- perfect and ambiguously plaintive/dangerous as Thérèse, although for her career’s sake I wish people would stop casting her in these Baby Doll/Postman Always Rings Twice erring- young-wife roles. One watches this Thérèse Raquin as if from an immense distance, and with total detachment.

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