Interview with Playwright: Helen Edmundson

Posted on: September 22nd, 2015 by Ted Sod

Ted Sod spoke to Helen Edmundson about the process of her writing her stage adaptation of Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin.

Ted Sod: Will you tell us about your background? Where were you born and educated? You started as an actress in an agit-prop theatre company and then began to write, correct?

Helen Edmundson: Yes, that’s all correct. I was born in Liverpool, and we lived in various cities around the northwest of England before I went to Manchester University, where I studied Drama and then went on to complete a diploma in playwriting. Towards the end of my time there, I set up an agit-prop theatre company mainly doing cabaret style songs and sketches around political and feminist issues. Eventually after being with the company for a few years, and working as an actress freelance as well, I decided it was time to leave and to write plays. Just before I left, I wrote a musical for the other people in the company. It was called Ladies in the Lift, and it went very well. It was that which led to my first commission to write a play, and my career developed from there.


TS: Would you say that your work often focuses on women?

HE: Yes. I’m very drawn to strong female protagonists. I think that’s partly because I identify with them and feel that there are so many stories to be told. I get a real kick out of watching large numbers of women being on stage and giving them voices as strong as their male counterparts.

Keira Knightley in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.

Keira Knightley in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: Which brings us to your adaptation of Thérèse Raquin. This was a commission, correct?

HE: Yes, it was. When Roundabout asked me to do it, I was thrilled. There wasn’t any question in my mind. It was a gift.


TS: Were you immediately drawn to the story?

HE: Thérèse Raquin has always been one of my favorite novels, and I love Zola’s work in general. I’ve read a large amount of it. I fell in love with Thérèse Raquin when I was a teenager -- it’s the passion, the illicit nature of it, the way that it chills you and takes you to dark places. I remember seeing an adaptation of it on television, on the BBC, when I was growing up, and it completely seeped into my soul. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’ve always thought I’d love to do a stage version. I actually wrote this adaptation very quickly compared with how long it sometimes takes me to write one.


TS: Will you tell our readers what you think Thérèse Raquin is about?

HE: I think it explores what happens when our most basic, animal instincts are pushed to the surface and start to dominate our behavior. And what happens when that clashes with the more developed side of ourselves, the empathetic side, the side where our conscience resides – everything which separates us from the beasts. Zola claims he was trying to do a scientific experiment. It was as though he was saying: I’m going to examine human beings under the microscope and see how they work - study the link between human physicality and sensuality and the way they behave, etc. But he didn’t just take an average girl as his subject. He took somebody who had been suppressing that animal side of her nature for such a long time that it was ready to burst forth in an explosive and unstoppable way. Thérèse and Laurent are both – but particularly Thérèse – extreme creatures. I love the daringness of Zola deciding to see what would happen when people cannot control that side of their nature.


TS: Did you have to do a great amount of research? Did you read Zola’s stage version? Was that of any value?

HE: I always like to read as much as I can about the author and feel that I really know what they were intending. I want to know what it was that was preoccupying them and inspiring them, so I fully understand the material and themes. I did read Zola’s stage version, yes. It was largely useful because of things it doesn’t do. He was writing with his hands tied behind his back. There was no way that, at his time, he would have been able to put any of the more explicit parts of the book on stage. He’d already got into trouble over Thérèse Raquin – there was a great backlash against it. It became the sort of book that people passed under tables and wouldn’t let anybody see them reading. People talked about it as being pornographic. Theatrical style and convention was also completely different at the time he was writing. But it was also useful to read the voices he had given to the friends of the family who come into Madame’s house. It was lovely to read Zola’s portrayal of those characters.


TS: I find it fascinating how quiet Thérèse is at the beginning of your adaptation, and how she’s given a voice by finding her sexual self. Was that challenging?

HE: That was. I felt it was important for the audience to see how restrained Thérèse had been for so many years. I felt it was really important that we see her unable to express herself, to understand that she has never met with people of a similar nature, who might understand her emotions, desires and intellect. There’s clearly a sense that she is stifled into living a life that is not fulfilling. One of the challenges for a director is to keep our focus on Thérèse. Once the director works towards helping the audience to focus on this silent creature, she can actually become incredibly powerful in her silence. And when she does start to speak, hopefully we’re hanging on her every word because we’ve waited so long to get a glimpse of what’s underneath the surface.

Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.

Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN. Photo by Jenny Anderson.


I think the challenges of this adaptation were similar to the ones which I’ve faced before. Plays work in a completely different way from novels. The structure and dialogue are necessarily different. Even characters sometimes have to be altered or developed. Sometimes it's only the bones of the story and the ideas and themes which remain the same. Novels can meander - plays can't. For example, in the novel, Thérèse goes through a phase where she feels relatively happy - the time when she is on her own, when she is not attached to any man and when she is educating herself. She starts reading novels, she starts talking to intellectuals in cafes. Her mind is expanding. Things like that I would have loved to be able to have a little more time with. But it wasn’t possible in the adaptation if I was going to maintain the tension and keep the pace. I had to deal with that part of her journey as deftly as possible because the dramatic tension is compelling us to move forward.


TS: Why do you think so many artists have been intrigued by this story and have written their own versions of it?

HE: I think it’s partly because of the scale and the intensity of the emotions in the piece. When you put that against the fact that it was taking place in a time which was less liberated than ours, I think it gives the most wonderful, dramatic clash. I think artists are all always looking for that. We’re always looking for that sense of what happens when things which we’re not allowed to do actually break out and happen. Thérèse and Laurent are not psychopaths. They’re not mad. They are people who are functioning in the world, who have people around for tea and to play cards. And yet, they take that step. They move into that zone where some of us may sometimes have considered going, but haven't. To be able to deal with characters who do take that step is enormously alluring and fascinating.


TS: What do you look for in a director?

HE: A lot of plays which I’ve written, particularly the adaptations, are not naturalistic. Some of them are more overtly expressionistic than others. Thérèse Raquin is probably one of the least expressionistic ones I’ve written in a way, but I think a director has to recognize that it can’t be naturalistic. It has to involve really using the performers’ physicality, using movement direction, going to a place way beyond reality. Even the language is heightened - it’s rhythmic and precise, poetic at times. I look for somebody who can move the action swiftly from one location to another. The directors I love are the ones who thrive on that. Who don’t think, oh my goodness, how on earth is it possible to move from a riverbank to a flat in Paris in the space of half a minute? I love the ones who relish and harvest that to serve the drama of the piece, and to push the boundaries of theatre.


TS: And what about performers? Do you have a sense of the traits the actors need to do this type of play?

HE: I think the actors need to be very brave. I think they need to be aware that they’re not going to be surrounded by lots of props or things to hide behind. They are quite exposed. I love to work with actors who are strong storytellers and who are not afraid to go to highly emotional places.


TS: I’m wondering to what degree you’ll be involved with rehearsals. Do you anticipate any script changes?

HE: I’m going to be there for the first week of rehearsals when the company are really investigating the script. Hopefully I’ll be of some use. I will certainly be looking out for any problems. I feel confident in the script, but if there are ways in which I can change things in order to solve a particular staging challenge, for example, I’ll be ready to help out with that. And I’ll be there during the first previews to keep an eye on the storytelling.

Thérèse Raquin begins previews October 1 at Studio 54. For more information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Therese Raquin

1 Comment
  1. Adaptations in Theatre - Roundabout Theatre Company Official Blog

    October 24, 2015

    […] Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Thérèse Raquin is the newest addition to a long history of bringing written works to life. There are many other novels that have made the journey to the stage. Here are just a few… […]



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