Gary Abrahams, Thérèse Raquin

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Coming to the Glasshouse this month is Thérèse Raquin, a Dirty Pretty Theatre and Critical Stages production that is an adaptation of Emile Zola’s original emotional novel. Gary Abrahams both adapted the work and directs the production, and he shares some of the highlights with us …

How was your company, Dirty Pretty Theatre, established?

I studied a Masters in Directing, and for my Masters project I adapted a novel by James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room. When I left university, I wanted to get that play out there, so I formed a company – which is a collective with some designers I’d worked with previously, including costume designers and lighting designers. We’ve been around for five years now.

I focus on adaptation; looking at non-theatre works and how to bring them to life on the stage. I work as a freelance director as well on other projects, but Dirty Pretty Theatre is my baby.

I’ve worked for companies like Red Stitch and the Melbourne Theatre Company and other commercial producers, but I try to make sure I get to do at least one Dirty Pretty related project a year.

You mentioned that you like to work on adaptations; why the interest in this type of work? Is there a challenge, particularly, in this process for you?

There is a challenge. I think with adaptation, one of the things you have to make sure of is there is a reason to adapt a work. Putting it in theatrical form actually kind of offers the material something and shifts it in a certain way, and that is what I am really curious about.

There is no point in telling a story that has been told already and already exists in literary form as well, unless you can add something to it.

I think for me with Thérèse Raquin, I found the Emile Zola novel is beautiful and a landmark for its time, but it’s quite long and sprawling and a lot happens in it, and it shifts locations quite a bit – so it really takes time with how it paints a scene. What I was excited by when working on it was what happens when you condense all of this into one setting in the recount apartment, which is really just two rooms. And when you really compact the time about the affair, the murder, the guilt, and the fallout from all of that, it heightens the intensity of the drama.

Thérèse Raquin has been around as a book since the late 1800s and has been adapted previously for stage, opera, and even TV. Apart from condensing the story, what other changes have you made?

There is always a big conversation when you’re dealing with contemporary adaptations of a work from other era about whether you update it to current times, or keep it in its original era. I’m always interested in us, as a contemporary audience, when we look at something from the past or a different era, making our own links to that and making our own prison from which we view it.

I was really interested in the woman called Thérèse, who is forced into a life that is not of her choosing. She is forced into a circumstance and a life of servitude, and she is oppressed and pushed around by her aunt and her sickly husband. I was interested in what happens to people when they are forced into a life like this, and the bad choices that sometimes result.

I think there are definitely contemporary measurements with this, and I want the audience to discover that by themselves – without having to spell it out for them.

This particular piece of work has been described as a tragedy. Is that how you view the story?

Yes, very much so. It is definitely a tragic story, and in the adaptation it’s also a kind of melodrama, in the true sense. I think melodrama can have a bad rap – a bit of a bad reputation that it’s something overdone or hammy. But, when you actually look at the Victorian era of theatre when this sort of work was written, it was about very pure, intense, emotional stories and was about diving into the hearts of human emotion and experience – although heightened and intense.

I was interested in exploring that theatrically – for a contemporary maker and a contemporary audience, we can play a melodrama in a way that hopefully is satisfying.

The original story used a lot of symbolism to convey different themes. Is this something you’ve used on stage as well?

Yes, absolutely. There are so many symbols and images that we play with … Like, the costuming. We are dealing with women who are in tight corsets and huge hoop skirts, and it is so interesting when you have a small playing space and what that does to the space, because suddenly the girls have about a metre and a half circumference around them which is taken up by the skirt, which shrinks the space. This heightens the sense of entrapment and claustrophobia. There is a lot of imagery we play with around the corsetry and the costuming.

There is also a murder that takes place in the play, and there is a lot of premonitory imagery around death, with graves, dampness and water, so we have used imagery very strongly.

What do you feel is the overriding theme of the production? A lesson learned, perhaps?

A lesson learned … That guilt is inescapable, that there are always repercussions for your actions, that we are led by lust and that we are led by our passions, and that there is always a price to pay.

Final say …

I think it is going to be a fantastic production. I’m really excited to bring it to Port Macquarie, because it’s an exquisite theatre there. I think because of the style and grandeur of the play; it is just going to look magnificent on stage.

It is a very romantic, passionate play; there is a lot of love and a lot of passion, a bit of titillation – but there is also intrigue and murder. It kind of has everything! It’s a very entertaining show that moves very swiftly, and the cast is fantastic.

It is kind of rare these days, I think, to get a theatre production that is of this world, that is so beautiful and costumed and romantic with such a phenomenal cast.

Thanks Gary. Interview by Jo Robinson.


See Thérèse Raquin at the Glasshouse on June 14 at 8pm.
Tickets Adult $49.90; conc. $44.90.
Student session (for Years 11 &12), June 15 at 11am.
Tickets Students $16.50.
Visit or call the Box Office on 6581 8888.

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