Monday, November 16, 2015

On Broadway—Keira Knightley's Debut in 'Thérèse Raquin'; Mike Bartlett's 'King Charles III'

Thérèse Raquin
Adapted by Helen Edmundson, based on Emile Zola's novel; directed by Evan Cabnet
Performances through January 3, 2016
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

King Charles III
Written by Mike Bartlett; directed by Rupert Goold
Performances through January 31, 2016
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan in Thérèse Raquin (photo: Joan Marcus)

Making her belated Broadway debut is an intense, trenchant Keira Knightley as the title character in Thérèse Raquin, an adaptation of Emile Zola's tragic 1871 novel (and 1873 play) about a stifled young wife who takes a lover, helps him kill her husband and is literally hounded to death by the husband's restless spirit.

Giving a typically fierce and intelligent portrayal of the drab, spinsterish woman craving for physical intimacy with someone other than her loathsome husband Camille, Knightley throws caution to the wind embodying Thérèse, who literally jumps into the arms of Laurent, her husband's boyhood friend who conveniently appears one day, consummating an intense affair that leads to murder and madness.

Helen Edmundson's adaptation is unafraid to be melodramatic—Zola was a master at making melodrama thrillingly poetic—which creates a space for the characters to act as if they're in soap opera which in a way they are. Director Evan Cabnet cannily twists the screws ever more tightly and tautly, with Beowulf Borritt's arresting set—properly claustrophobic inside the family home and ironically spacious outdoors—preparing the couple to march inexorably to the ultimate comeuppance. 

Aside from Knightley's controlled, incisive acting, Judith Light is at first funny then later most affecting as Camille's smothering mother: she's especially good in the extremely tense moments when she tries (but fails) to finger Thérèse and Laurent as Camille's killers after an incapacitating stroke. Gabriel Ebert perfectly shows off Camile's annoying cloddishness, while Matt Ryan, a charismatic Laurent, has such palpable chemistry with Knightley that the adulterers' sexual encounters are charged with the lustful energy that makes Thérèse Raquin such smoldering theater.

Lydia Wilson and Tim Pigott-Smith in King Charles III (photo: Joan Marcus)

Mike Bartlett, author of King Charles III, made a provocative splash with his play Cock a few seasons ago: the New York Times defiantly still refuses to print its title (they nonsensically call it Cockfight Play). His latest, a big hit in London and proving to be the same on Broadway, is a speculative drama, or "future history" as he calls it, about the death of Queen Elizabeth and the ascension of Prince Charles to the throne: a good enough subject about which a lucid and lacerating political drama could be written.

But Bartlett wants more, so he makes his play faux-Shakespeare: rhyming couplets, blank verse, ghostly apparitions, Prince Hal in the form of Harry, Lady Macbeth in the form of Kate. Such gimmickry does his play a disservice by leaning so heavily on the Bard: there's a moment when Kate alludes to King Lear by saying "For nothing comes from nothing said," and at the performance I attended, a woman behind me excitedly whispered to her companion, "I know where that's from!" Don't we all, dear lady.

After taking the throne, King Charles wants to become more hands-on running the monarchy and gets involved in defeating a bill that makes freedom of the press a thing of the past. However, the prime minister, the opposition leader and Charles' own son William—next in line to the throne—want him to stand down and allow the political process to play out without royal interference. This disagreement, soon embroiling the new king in abdication talk, is the crux of the little conflict the play has, which is probably why Bartlett dives fully into Shakespeare allusions that give gravitas to what, in essence, is basically (to take a cue from Bartlett and steal from the master) much ado about nothing.

Director Rupert Goold gives King Charles III a high gloss that adds Shakespearean elements of its own: but his often effective pageantry doesn't prop up the ginned-up national crisis at the play's center. The second act, in which very little happens dramatically and is often excruciating to sit through, also isn't helped by Jocelyn Pook's music, which lands somewhere between excruciating Philip Glass minimalism and hollow choral writing. 

Goold and Bartlett have trouble fitting the subplot about restless Prince Harry and his commoner girlfriend Jess into the main storyline, so much so that Richard Goulding's Harry and Tafline Steen's Jess seem to be in a completely different play: in this, King Charles III falls far short of Shakespeare's miraculous ability to juggle multiple plots and slip effortlessly between high tragedy and low comedy.

Happily, the cast, which avoids easy caricature, is smashingly good, with Goulding (Harry) and Steen (Jess) joining formidable costars Oliver Chris (William), Lydia Wilson (Kate) and Margot Leicester (Camilla), with Goulding and Leicester actually looking like their real-life counterparts. If the worthy Tim Pigott-Smith is only intermittently overwhelming as he speaks Charles' soliloquies, it's because Bartlett's words aren't nearly as pregnant or penetrating as Shakespeare's. That's an impossibility for pretty much every writer, but since Bartlett himself has made the comparison, it must be pointed out, much to his play's detriment.

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