First a novel and then a play, Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola, epitomises the miseries of the lower middle-class world of 1860s Paris. It moves away from the high tragedy of the Enlightenment to prove that human misery is classless and universal, and that it can hit even harder when the setting is as sordid as this run-down haberdashery shop. Like Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, Zola can find the full horrors of human motivation and behaviour in the most unlikely venues.

Therese Raquin, played by Lizzie Ballinger, is unhappily married to her presumably impotent cousin Camille (Julien Faddoul), and spends her days in the sordid little haberdashery shop run by her aunt/Camille’s mother (Louise Brehmer). Sullen and put-upon, she is tempted into a torrid love affair with Laurent (Luke Townson), a friend of Camille’s. So desperate are they to be together that they lure Camille onto a pleasure boat on the Seine and drown him. And then, as we knew it would, everything goes disastrously wrong. Like the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth, Camille comes back to haunt them, and eventually they swallow prussic acid. (Painful poisons seem to be the choix du jour in this period — what ever happened to a good sharp knife or sleeping pills? Much less excruciating, but perhaps it’s all part of the need of the characters to punish themselves for their sins.)

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey

Choose what you pay, from $99.

Sign up now

The choice of wife-and-husband team Helen Howard and Michael Futcher, one of Brisbane’s most innovative and dynamic theatre couples, as resident directors of Zen Zen Zo, marks a subtle and probably necessary progression from this long-running theatre company’s philosophy of combining the principles of the Suzuki method with modern avant-garde physical theatre.

Working from a new adaptation of the novel/play by Howard and Futcher, Howard as director has successfully melded physical theatre and straight drama together, giving us a spine-tingling experience where melodrama and obsessive dance movements combine in a form of theatre not seen before in Brisbane. What we have is an almost Brechtian distancing from the action and characters, so that we cannot see the play through the lens of realism, but are shocked into accepting the impressionistic story-telling on its own terms.

Zen Zen Zo has always worked on a minimal budget, so this show had a very short rehearsal period, thus forcing the actors/performers to rely on their own creativity. Playing a very basic set, the characters gyre and gimble in a kind of surreal semi-mime through the convoluted winding stairs and corridors that link the various locations of the set, and convey much of the action through pantomime.

But the angst of the protagonists, especially Ballinger and Townson, is displayed as much through their frenetic dance movement as through their cries of agony. This double effect helps to overcome the dreadful acoustics of Studio 3 at the Old Museum, a heritage-listed building that wasn’t built for straight drama. Some of the more experienced actors, like Louise Brehmer and Eugene Gilfedder, as the decaying aunt/mother and shifty old lawyer, hold the play together without upstaging the younger actors, who are allowed to star in their own right.

Lizzie Ballinger, trained as a dancer, is magnificent as Therese. Her transformation from meek unhappy mouse to tortured hysterical lover is quite brilliant, and is matched in technical expertise by Luke Townson as Laurent, who moves effortlessly through a range of emotions from lust to indifference. Louise Brehmer does a wonderful slow-death scene as she succumbs to the effects of a stroke, and there must be a special mention of Luisa Prosser as the background character Suzanne, who is new to Brisbane stages but an artist from whom we hope to see much more.

This is not a production for everyone, because of its fractured technique and strange mix of genres. But for people who want to see brave, innovative theatre, it’s a must.

The details: Therese Raquin plays Studio 3 at The Old Museum until December 8. Tickets via WebTicketing.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

Join us and save up to 50%

Subscribe before June 30 and choose what you pay for a year of Crikey. Save up to 50% or, chip in extra and get one of our limited edition Crikey merch packs.

Join Now