Marianne Elliott once again shows herself to be among the boldest, most original, most visually innovative of the new generation of directors. After successes with Pillars of the Community (National) and Much Ado About Nothing (Royal Shakespeare Company), she tackles Zola’s play with tremendous panache, capturing both its melodrama and its psychological depth.
Zola himself adapted his scandalous 1867 novel, written when he was only 27, for the stage. He intended it, in what he described as the invention of naturalism, to be a scientific exploration of human behaviour - a man and a woman, eaten up with desire, kill the woman’s husband and attempt to live with the knowledge of what they have done.
Hildegard Bechler’s bleak set, sometimes seen through a gauze, Olly Fox’s eerie music and Neil Austin’s lighting design, by turns dramatic and ghostly, combine to complete Elliott’s world, both realistic and full of suggestion. The triviality of the everyday - the shop downstairs, the weekly game of dominoes, the chatter and weak jokes - provides a grey background to the gaudiness of lust and the nightmare of guilt.
Charlotte Emmerson and Ben Daniels as Therese and Laurent, enslaved to longing and then disgust, are riveting as they rise to Elliott’s challenges. Most startling is a helter-skelter sequence of tableaux in which the desperate pair combine in different spot-lit configurations. Judy Parfitt, as Camille’s bereaved, dumb-struck mother, Patrick Kennedy as the child-like victim and Mark Hadfield, Michael Culkin and Emma Lowndes as the small-thinking locals provide sterling support.