The irony of this, British superstar Keira Knightley’s Broadway debut, is that – for much of the first half – it’s easy to forget she’s there. Largely silent, pale and as faded a presence as her nondescript smock, as the titular Thérèse Raquin she disappears into the background – crowded out by the other characters when they’re not bullying or ignoring her.
This is deliberate, of course. In this adaptation – specially commissioned by Roundabout Theatre from playwright Helen Edmundson – of French writer Émile Zola’s 1867 novel, the orphaned Thérèse is a coiled spring of repressed (and suppressed) emotions. Corseted by society and her overbearing aunt, she walks numbly into marriage with her spiteful, spoilt cousin, Camille.
But when Camille uproots his family to Paris, he introduces Thérèse to his dashing childhood friend, Laurent – and inadvertently unleashes a wave of desire in her that has fatal consequences. From here, director Evan Cabnet ditches his production’s initial dreamlike, impressionistic tone for a psycho-sexual handwringer of adultery, murder and guilt-inflamed madness.
This is a deeply weird play, swinging wildly between earnest social critique and something akin to The Turn of the Screw, complete with a ghostly voice and disembodied knocking. In keeping with Edmundson’s adaptation, which layers on angst with a trowel, it’s often overwrought. Cabnet never quite nails a consistent tone, which makes deciding when we’re actually supposed to be laughing tricky.
However, a pivotal scene which sees Thérèse and Laurent silently, menacingly circle a sleeping Camille on the banks of the Seine – daring each other on – is genuinely suspenseful. And Beowulf Boritt’s abstract set, with its paint-flecked, canvas-like backdrop and oppressive rooms, beautifully reflects Thérèse’s isolation and entrapment. The lapping of real, on-stage water and the flap of wings evokes her desire for escape.
And Knightley? Well, while she’s playing a character whose arc consists largely of being differently miserable at different times, she does it with a committed, powerful intensity. Her eyes really sell Thérèse’s horror as the Paris set descends on the stage, stranding her as spectator and prisoner to her own life. And her first sexual encounter with Matt Ryan’s Laurent is ferociously, startlingly effective.
The rest of the cast (notably the superb Judith Light as Thérèse’s aunt) feel a little squandered; and any real humour largely dies along with Gabriel Ebert’s splendidly unpleasant Camille. But in spite of this, and a skittish first half that drags in places, this production (bolstered by Knightley) exerts a peculiar, feverish pull.