Neil Bartlett’s world premiere of The Plague is the first stage adaptation of Albert Camus’ novel, portraying the terror, power and spirit of Camus’ writing. Acted by a five person cast in the intimate Arcola Theater, the 20th century French existentialist’s ideas are presented with prowess and sensitivity.
Adapting the novels of Albert Camus for the theatre is a challenging task. Yet Bartlett, OBE, felt it necessary to convey the ‘urgently contemporary’ question: ‘what can we rely on to get us through the impossible and the hateful?’ Camus originally composed La Peste in 1947 as an allegory for the dangerous spread of fascism in Europe during the recent world war. While Bartlett’s production conveys Camus’ metaphor of a plague spread by rats, he transposes the play to an unidentified town, thus conveying the universal message to a contemporary audience. For Bartlett, this is not an outdated message, but rather one which has never been so appropriate as in 2017.
The set is bare but for three microphones, two tables and five chairs. Taking the form of a hearing, five witnesses recount the events of the plague – from the spotting of one dead rat to a whole city quarantined. There is no reference to a setting, despite Camus’ specific placement of the novel in Oran, Algeria, once again affirming the fact that this is a story, the story of the uncontrollable spread of hate, that could occur anywhere. The sparsely furnished set confirms the anonymity of the location, and leaves much to the imagination. Bartlett expressed his intentions to create a plague in the viewer’s mind, not on the stage, thus purposefully minimising reenactment of the plague, and rather focusing on the characters’ haunting descriptions. Sirens, gunshots, screams and solitary piano chords make up the entirety of the soundscape, once again leaving the plague to grow in the minds of the audience members. By reducing the story’s physical elements to its bare minimum, Bartlett references the more important metaphorical and theoretical meaning behind the work.
Sara Powell’s powerful leading performance as the altruistic Dr Rieux is chilling. The supporting actors provide a Greek ‘chorus’ style narrative, perhaps referencing Camus’ interest in Greek theater, or emphasising the tragic nature of the novel. Staying true to the text and using Camus’ words is part of the homage Bartlett pays to Camus; a subtle reference to ‘an Arab shot on a beach somewhere’ is a fond nod to the philosopher’s earlier work The Outsider.
Although Bartlett’s production has a lacklustre start, it gains momentum and becomes a profound and tragic moral tale respectful of Albert Camus’ genius. In the confines of the Arcola Theater, the actors are free to address the audience directly, stripping bare the human condition in a time of crisis.
This harrowing new production strikes right at the heart of contemporary political issues. As Sara Powell faces the crowd and says with contained belief, “there is more to admire about one’s fellow-citizens than to despise or despair of”, Camus’ subtle optimism peeks through the tragedy and destruction of the plague, to reveal a shy, yet clear, hope in humanity.