Keira Knightley Makes Her Broadway Debut in « Thérèse Raquin »
By Adam Green
For Keira Knightley, the current state of the relationship between life and art could best be described as ironic: On the one hand, she’s a new mother (she and her husband, James Righton, welcomed their daughter, Edie, in May) getting ready to make her Broadway debut in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s « Thérèse Raquin »; on the other, she’s playing a depressive, homicidal adulteress who kills herself at the end of the play. « It’s a totally wonderful, happy moment in my life, and here I am doing… this, » she says, laughing and breaking into her famously sunny smile, more benediction than mere facial expression. « It’s bizarre. I said yes to it before I knew I was pregnant. And then there was the question of, Oh, God, do I need to pull out? My mum and another friend of mine said, « Absolutely not! You »re a working woman. Your daughter has to know that’s where she comes from, and that’s part of you. You stick to your plans.’ So I did what I was told. »
As the repressed title character of Helen Edmundson’s new adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1867 novel, under the direction of Evan Cabnet, Knightley always does as she’s told, including marrying her sickly, narcissistic cousin Camille (Gabriel Ebert) at the behest of her aunt (Judith Light). Soon, though, Thérèse falls into a torrid affair with Camille’s friend Laurent (Matt Ryan), awakening her long-submerged sexual hunger — and rage — and leading to the two of them drowning Camille before succumbing to fear, mutual loathing, and double suicide.
Knightley, who’s proved with terrific London stage performances in « The Misanthrope » and « The Children’s Hour » that she’s no slumming movie star, was offered the chance to play Thérèse in two earlier productions and turned both down because, she says, « it scared me — melodrama is a tricky fucker, and I think that I just didn’t get it. » But she fell in love with the almost-stylized musicality of Edmundson’s dialogue and the chance to explore the effects of doing one’s duty while swallowing one’s feelings (« a horrendous concoction for tragedy and disaster, really ») and to look at what happens to a woman driven by desperation to behave like a caged animal.
« As an actor, she is so brave and fearless and precise and thorough, all of which you really need to be able to tackle a role of this size and severity and complexity, » says Cabnet, who most recently directed the sensational « Gloria » Off-Broadway. « Keira has made Thérèse so deep and complex and multilayered that we really feel for her, even in perhaps ugly moments of the story. It’s a piece of emotional magic. »
« I get to inhabit this claustrophobic world and plumb the depths of human misery and depravity, » Knightley says. « And then I emerge, and I’ve got the loveliest, loveliest little girl waiting for me, and I get home and she goes ‘Ba!’ at me. You couldn’t ask for more. »
Knightley may have arrived at a sweet spot in her life, but that doesn’t mean it can’t inform her art. « Sleep deprivation and hormones are quite an interesting thing as far as the female psyche goes, » she admits. « And I can’t say that I haven’t used a bit of that deranged feeling to understand where Thérèse is coming from. Teething, colic, being up all night for the fifth night in a row — it’s all fodder. »