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FringeReview UK 2017

The Plague

Arcola Theatre, London

Genre: Drama, International, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Arcola Theatre, Studio 1


Low Down

Neil Bartlett’s stripped-down adaptation of The Plague, Camus’ 1947 novel, is directed by Bartlett himself who also (minimally) designs around a five-handed cast with minimal props in Studio 1 of the Arcola Theatre. Jack Weir’s lighting manages a peripheral dimension partly off – red and green lights menace, and lights tables in a ghostly gleam. Dinah Mullen’s sound terraces cries, shots and ambulance sirens. Till May 6th.


It takes a shaping imagination to frame Albert Camus’ 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague) to resemble every enquiry we know with a frisson of Chilcot and others we’re all more complicit in, like Stephen Lawrence.


This is what Neil Bartlett’s stripped-down version manages however, in this universal tale of moral infection, resonating with collaboration and resistance to Nazidom. As Camus makes clear, it’s by no means limited by time or geography, however specific his novel – set in Oran, French Algeria in the 1940s, faintly echoed here. For one thing as Bartlett notes, poor Arabic residents reside in every city, though they barely edge into the novel. All words are Camus’ own translated Bartlett states. The selection and repetition though, make something menacingly new. And there have been small significant changes after all.


Bartlett himself directs and (minimally) designs The Plague‘s five-handed cast with minimal props including two tables, chairs and three microphones; they take up floor-marked positions in Studio 1 of the Arcola. Jack Weir’s lighting manages a peripheral dimension partly off – red and green lights menace, footlights glimmer at scolloped edges beyond the studio floor. Most tellingly, Weir lights the tables in a ghostly gleam at crucial points. Dinah Mullen’s sound terraces cries, shots and ambulance sirens; at several points there’s a range of terrible screams, one of a child.


If we begin with an enquiry, all five lined up behind a desk and microphones, the modulated tongue of Rieux’ third-person narration is fired and split over the five named protagonists. Dr Rieux, Sara Powell’s wearily compassionate portrayal with a steely refusal to speak anything but truth; Billy Postlethwaite’s Raymond Rambert, Paris journalist trapped by the plague desperate to get out back to his lover; Martin Turner’s urbane Jean Tarrou (not, here, another journalist); Burt Caesar’s Grand, the little town clerk whose devotion to truth and the mot juste has him forever re-framing a single sentence (here not a novel but letter to a distant wife), but who never leaves his post; Joe Alessi’s Cottard, profiteer of what the plague brings. In the novel I put him down as a moral plague carrier. Perhaps.


There are changes and submersions. No thundering Father Paneloux blaming the populace; clearly Bartlett found this a complicating factor, though he allows for instance the moment where a singer dies in front of a terrified audience with the aria from Gluck’s Orfeo, Che Faro, to percolate briefly for those who know the novel.


What does resonate is the pure human conflict of denial, acceptance, fight or flight, the essential conversations mainly radiating from Rieux about the first dead rat, to the point after a medical board’s cautious measures where he encounters a woman ’screaming herself to death, blood pouring from her groin, stared me straight in the face.’


Though Powell’s dignified Rieux rarely has occasion to enact surroundings terrors – her stillness is pointed but not passive – others, Caesar, Turner and most of all Alessi enact victims tabled or in Alessi’s case a man attempting (it appears) suicide that initially looks like the first plague victim. It’s initially confusing to judge by comments later. Alessi later enacts Cottard’s running amok after the crisis; his facial and physical mobility directly contrasts with Powell’s. These certainly punctuate Rieux’s dogged avatar in Powell, whose emotions are as held in check as Rieux notes: here though Rieux reveals herself as narrator necessarily early. Powell enacts the dignity.


The redemptive note, made famous by a line not present (‘I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out’) emerges out of Rieux’ friendship with Tarrou. Most famously, their swim together, here reduced to a recommendation and folded towel, as if the moment’s too famous not to allude to. Though if you didn’t know it, it’d scarcely register. Turner nevertheless conveys Tarrou’s courage and decency. Caesar dignifies the simply dignified Grand too. Like Rieux, he’s a mainly static figure, monumental perhaps morally and as someone slighted and enduring. One vivid touch of naturalism comes though when fever-ridden Grand asks for his attempt at a letter to be burnt, and it is.


Postlethwaite’s conflicted Rambert grows in stature. From paying Cottard and shady confreres to escape to his lover outside once the quarantine’s up, he selflessly volunteers alongside Tarrou, Grand and Rieux. Postlethwaite brings out Rambert’s petulant Parisian disbelief, morphing to denial then gritty dangerous work immersed in the fight for others. We don’t believe his face-saving ‘till I can leave’; by the end he sees the world and girl he left behind ‘as an absolute stranger’ and that ‘in a time of plague we must speak for everyone’. It’s one of those lines amplified by the cast, one of those moments the struggle Bartlett infuses into the narration pays dividends


This is an adaptation that plays on the mind as it’s meant to both immediately, and after. Ferocious simplicity and pared choices make for an absorbing evening.


If you know the original, it sets up a dialogue with it, but renders it somehow permanently altered. Shorn of props, video projections or naturalist distractions, we let the piece seep in. Bartlett knows such brutal relevance never needs underlining, as we look at homeless Syrians and those of every ethnicity shivering in an unsuspecting city.