FringeReview UK 2018
Director Abbey Wright takes Ben Okri’s occasionally florid adaptation over two hours forty-five in this first ever British stage version. The Print Room at the Coronet. David Plater’s mostly exemplary lighting harmonizes over Richard Hudson’s eggshell-blue distressed set. Scene-changes and movement are blocked by Joyce Henderson, Matt Regan’s sound and composition terrace the atmosphere. Till October 20th.
Albert Camus is in season. With the revival of Neil Bartlett’s acclaimed 2017 dramatization of his second novel, La Peste (The Plague), again at the Arcola, we now have its predecessor.
The Print Room at the Coronet prove as ever brave, with an almost reckless determination to allow existentialism’s birth a kind of sermon. That sermon’s compelling here. Ben Okri’s is the British premiere of any version of Camus’ 1942 debut novel L’Étranger (universally translated as The Outsider), and no wonder. Though short – almost a novella – it’s a work steeped in the apparently monochrome mind of Meursault, the supremely unexcitable protagonist who doesn’t know what day his mother died and is condemned for not crying at her funeral. The small matter of killing a pointedly nameless Arab seems merely a perquisite for ridding society of an alien, one who refuses to think – or reflex – with society’s spasms.
How to convert a first-person narrative into compelling drama? Abbey Wright takes Okri’s occasionally florid adaptation over two hours forty-five, about a quarter of an hour too long perhaps, though that end’s compelling and Sam Frenchum’s anti-hero sustains all the deadpan that could be asked of him. That’s until the coda.
There’s questions begged here too, in pace and the efficacy of David Plater’s mostly exemplary lighting. It beautifully harmonizes over Richard Hudson’s eggshell-blue distressed set – very much Print Room house-style, which instantly reminds you of the unique spell this theatre casts.
A shifting play of light suggests bleached Algiers’ dwellings, golden and rippling over the sea (Meursault miming this fully clothed) a prison cell in chiaroscuro, and with a few chairs a dim funeral parlour or later a sun-shafted courtroom. All this with the slow or faster whirl of overhead fans creating gyroscopic shadows on the stage floor. Scene-changes and movement blocked by Joyce Henderson is notably good, Matt Regan’s sound and composition terracing the atmosphere.
The one thing Plater mostly admits is that key character in The Outsider: the sun. At the climactic moment of Act One – which follows the novel’s bipartite structure so both acts are the same length – Meursault is almost blinded, certainly in a trance, because of sun, and Okri embellishes Camus in the first line: ‘Cymbals of sunlight crashed on my forehead. The scorching blade stabbed at my stinging eyes…. The sky split open from one end to the other raining down fire.’ But this is Camus too, and we get virtually none of that oppressive noon glare in Plater’s light, merely a quiet gleam. It’s surprising and robs us of Camus’ – and Meursault’s – physical rationalisation of an irrational barbarism. Meursault all along refuses abstractions, ending with a paean to the physical.
Wright understands this superlatively elsewhere. Meursault’s frying an egg on stage and eating it over nearly five minutes is hypnotic, works with Frenchum’s stillness lending him a monolithic corporality. It’s heightened too when in a prison cell he lies on his back, inserts his hand into his flies and masturbates with quiet graphic force. Both gestures assault the fourth wall – the fried-egg smell nearly steals the show at that point. It’s just there needs to be more moments of Meursault’s sheerly physical response – perhaps to the sun, or sexually – to contrast with his inscrutability when talking.
The rest though is suffused with atmosphere and a swift dissolving cast. Notable is Sam Alexander’s cheerfully vicious Raymond, the man whose feud with his ex-mistress (Andrea Paduraru in various roles) incurs the wrath of male relatives. one of Meursault’s actions is to disarm Raymond taking possession of his revolver, with fatal results. Alexander has an ease, an amplitude of cocky misogyny that’s horribly winning. Frenchum has by contrast to remain uninvolved, at least in this production.
Vera Chok’s Marie – Meursault’s own girlfriend – is built up a little here, but it’s still difficult to do much with her. Sadly, Camus’ novels centre on as Meursault memorably declaims ‘one strand of a woman’s hair’ but warmth is a bit like the comic 1950s song complaining of a doctor’s rapture over a woman’s parts but ‘never me as a whole’.
Uri Roodner’s Salamano is exquisite: a man kicking the only thing he cares about, a dog, a rag bundle on a lead. Roodner’s lamentation over its disappearance is one of the things that enliven the very dust around Frenchum, as he does as the disarming and fatal caretaker who cadges a light off Meursault next a coffin. Alex Blake enjoys several cameos, not only as policeman or warder, but particularly Celeste, avuncular friend who does his best, hopelessly hemmed by the trial’s legalese. Blake’s warder feeds Meursault with a similar sense of everyone being out of his depth. That includes Josh Barrow’s youthful Lawyer, shrewd but with no oratory to compare with the prosecutor’s orgasm of righteousness.
Mark Penfold’s examining magistrate brings a weary philosophical pleading to his examinee; again it’s a vignette worth savouring, as is his Funeral Director’s contained shock. David Carlyle’s Boss is fleeting but his Prosecutor is a monstrous virtuoso, someone whom Meursault respond as neutrally to as everyone else, including Tessa Bell-Briggs’ patiently unfolding Judge. Bell-Briggs also notably brightens prison visits with a litany of what she’s brought her son – it’s one of the very best cameos. With her Judge you feel a direct plea might just have worked.
That’s of course to anticipate the jury and this production’s decision to employ fourteen from the Community Company works beautifully, as it did for instance in the Print Room’s 2016 Tempest. They’re first-rate.
But what of Archie Backhouse’s silent First Arab, and Nezar Alderazi’s Second (also a fellow prisoner)? apart from a non-confrontational haunting, certainly less than in life, the nameless man exerts little but emblematic pull, but there’s a twist. In a six-minute film scripted by Okri Alderazi speaks as The Insider, naming himself and his history. It’s a welcome, necessary reclamation of the nameless.
Frenchum is compellingly watchable, even as he’s so immobile. Whilst the narrative swirls round him he proves implacably focused and the light on him is implacable too. Only at the end does he break cover with a sudden realisation of his state, and it’s thrilling. Does Meursault need to be bleached so dramatically though? It doesn’t seem so from other renditions (the 1967 Visconti film probably isn’t an apt comparison). But there’s an affability about him too, in his non-judgmental relation to Raymond that renders him less sheerly robotic. Frenchum’s last scene though suggests he’s someone to watch, not just gaze on.
The Print Room scores again though. It’s in many ways a typically vintage production with flaws that don’t prevent a strong recommendation to anyone prepared to allow the intensity of Camus’ vision to soak into them, even where his sun doesn’t. If you enjoyed The Plague, this very different offering is mandatory. Most of all, like so much from The Print Room, this feels like European theatre. And we need it more desperately than ever.