Contemporary adaptation of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin will reinvigorate the work, almost 150 years after it was written.

In 1880s Paris, Thérèse Raquin leads a life of servitude. Her feelings of misery are heightened by an unhappy marriage, and so she initiates an illicit affair with her husband’s friend, Laurent. Fuelled by their passion for one another and their collective hatred towards Thérèse’s husband, the pair devise a murderous plan.

Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin (and his subsequent play of the same name) was met by an intense public backlash from the conservative audiences of the late 1870s. To many, the work was obscene and immoral. While its severity might have been diluted by the passing of time, Gary Abrahams promises to reinvigorate the text in his modern adaptation for Melbourne-based company Theatre Works.

“I think that we are much more used to murder mysteries, and sex on stage. It’s not as shocking anymore – I mean, every cop show starts with a dead prostitute on a slab,” said Elizabeth Nabben, who will perform the role of Thérèse. “In a way it’s almost romantic to look back on now. I think this is quite post-modern in that it’s not about them being caught, and it’s not about justice being served – it’s just about how a crime destroys your soul and how you live with yourself. It’s still quite relevant when we’re all so self-serving.”

Upon its release, Thérèse Raquin was banned. In fact, in a lengthy tirade, fellow French writer Louis Ulbach called the work “putrid”. But, as Nabben explains, the focus has shifted from the horrific blood and guts, to the questions of morality and the human condition.

Nabben herself is no stranger to such works, having recently played a list of villainous roles: from the harlot Annabelle in ‘Tis A Pity She’s a Whore (Malthouse), to the formidable Abigail in The Crucible (Melbourne Theatre Company). This typecast is slightly incongruous, given she is quietly spoken and well mannered – perhaps even a little reserved – over the phone. Despite her personal attributes, Nabben says she has a personal fascination with darkness.

“I’ve been really lucky to play these women who are powerless but passionate, and they’re sort of destroyed by their passion. I feel like they are destructive because they have been hurt themselves, and I find that really fascinating,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping during this play, it does get inside you because it’s about finding your own rage, the things that you repress, and the reasons why people make these decisions.”

While Simon Philips commissioned this adaptation some time ago, it was shelved after his departure from Melbourne Theatre Company. But it reaches the stage at last, almost 150 years after Zola wrote his original text. Joining Elizabeth Nabben is “a great mix of recent graduates and really experienced actors”, including Aaron Walton, Paul Blenheim, Rhys McConnochie, Edwina Samuels, Oliver Coleman, and Polish actress Marta Kaczmarek. Christopher De Groot performs a specially composed score each night.

“It’s actually quite faithful to the book and he [Gary Abrahams] has also been looking at Zola’s play. Because the book is such an incredible psychological interior world, dramatising and keeping the incredible internal descriptions has been the biggest challenge,” said Nabban. “But I think Gary’s been pretty faithful, exploring what happens when you manipulate life to suit yourself, and the psychological guilt that destroys Thérèse.”

Thérèse Raquin plays Theatre Works, St Kilda until August 30.