Thérèse Raquin at The Courtyard Theatre: Hypocrisy, Desperation and Lust in 19th-Century Paris

Sarah Chapleo’s adaptation of Émile Zola’s French classic, set in the not-so-fairytale streets of 19th-century Paris, introduces a rare accessibility to the piece and is more relevant today than we might think.

‘I completely fell in love with the entire world that Thérèse Raquin is in’, said Chapleo when I asked her what made her so keen to write an adaptation. It is this love for Zola’s work that has enabled an accurate, yet accessible transformation of the novel into a piece of wonderfully disturbing new writing. Thérèse Raquin tells the story of the monotonous lives of the Raquin family, focusing on an affair between two forbidden lovers. The consequences of their twisted love are as dark and despairing as the dank, dirty pit that they live in. Émile Zola’s twisted tale explores the sad reality of 19th century Paris, where he was attempting to uncover social truths about the city, opposing the ‘fairytale’ misconceptions from the outside world.

Chapleo’s adaptation brings this dismal world to the stage, making it all the more comprehensible, tangible and haunting. Perhaps it is a little closer to home than we think. Just as Zola aimed to destroy misconceptions about the ‘fairytaleness’ of Paris with his novel, something very similar has been happening recently in the media that gives Thérèse Raquin a lot of weight today. If you google ‘Paris’ right now, alongside the normal factual and tourist information, the first thing that comes up is articles describing developments in the recent terror attacks. It’s as if Zola’s uncovering of the reality that Paris is just the same as any other city, with its hypocrisy and corruption, is happening again today. Sarah Chapleo’s adaptation, therefore, acts as a means to compare 19th century Paris with today and ask ourselves – has the misconception really changed?

At around 90 minutes long, Chapleo has managed to turn this epic into an accessible piece of new writing. Instead of adapting the piece, she draws out important themes to bare to the audience, with a stripped-back staging and minimal set allowing them to focus on the characters and the story. Even though I attended the first full cast rehearsal, the air already had a fun energy, with a strong sense of togetherness, which all the cast agreed reflects in their performances. I was, at first, mistaken by this excited energy, as when the cast came together on stage, it was undeniably disturbing. The actor’s adaptation of Chapleo’s dark comedy makes you laugh without wanting to, in a way that encourages contemplation. Strong new writing combine with a fierce cast and creative team to make what really powerful, moving theatre.

‘I want to honour the epic story’, said Chapleo, and honour it she certainly does. Sticking as close to the original story as possible whilst squeezing it all into a 90 minute play is no mean feat, but Chapleo most certainly succeeds. French classical literature doesn’t get more accessible than this.


Thérèse Raquin is on 3rd – 7th February at The Courtyard Theatre. Tickets on sale now:


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