Call Things By Their Proper Name: The Plague at the Arcola Theatre

Photo courtesy of Alex Brenner.
Photo courtesy of Alex Brenner.

Albert Camus’s most famous work ends with a warning: “The plague bacillus never dies […] perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.” The novel, published in 1947, is often read as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France, lending these lines prophetic significance. With fascism and Nazism becoming buzzwords once again in relation to populist leaders like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, the time is ripe for a retelling of Camus’ tale of human decency in the face of a seemingly unstoppable evil. To use a phrase which recurs throughout Neil Bartlett’s taut adaptation of the novel, it is time we “call things by their proper name” to avoid sleepwalking into the mistakes of the past.

Camus’ novel is a sweeping anthropological study, probing with easy insight into how the citizens of Oran, Algeria survive alongside a deadly epidemic in a town under lockdown. With so much of the text focusing on the shared mindset of the community, a stage adaptation – especially a performance with only five actors – is not an easy undertaking. Neil Bartlett’s take on the novel is bold and effective, yet sacrifices some important scenes in the name of economy.

The retrospective take on the epidemic is key to Camus’s novel, and Bartlett has found an ingenious way of retaining it by staging his adaptation as a public inquiry. Documents and files litter the stage and there’s a liberal smattering of dates and figures in the dialogue. You can’t help but feel it’s all somewhat pedantic, like one of those sprawling reports into modern controversies that arrive years after the event and achieve nothing. An inquiry will in some senses always be too little too late; the only power it has is to prevent history from repeating itself, attribute blame and (as Dr Rieux famously explains) “to make sure that there is at least some memory of the injustices and violences that have been done to people.” This is, perhaps, one of the key ironies of this revival of Camus’s novel 50 years after its publication. The Holocaust was far from the last genocide of the twentieth century, and even today we read the news of prison camps for gay men in Chechnya. This production has an awareness of the limitations of art; our responsibility to document evil but also our inability to learn from it.

As an allegory the production was undoubtedly a success. Camus’ denunciation of economic inequality was subtly underlined, as was Dr Rieux’s (Sara Powell) frustration at the bureaucracy she must fight to protect the citizens of Oran from the plague. Cottard (Joe Alessi), who cuts a more pathetic figure in the novel, here becomes a chillingly amoral villain, leaving us uncomfortably ambivalent when he faces his comeuppance in a brutal police beating.

There was, unfortunately, a great deal left out of the novel that detracted from the overall effect. At a running time of only 90 minutes Bartlett could easily have expanded on more of Camus’ themes, and what he gained in pacing he lost in complexity. Father Paneloux, the priest whose hellfire and brimstone sermons are tempered by his personal contact with plague victims, is noticeably absent in this stage adaptation. In the novel, Tarrou gives us one of the most effective formulations of the problem of evil after Paneloux unconvincingly clings to his faith following the death of a child from the disease. “When innocence has its eyes gouged out,” Tarrou explains, “a Christian must lose his faith or accept the gouging out of eyes.” Perhaps this exchange is less relevant in an age of ever-decreasing church attendance, but for me, it loses none of its power.

The main flaw in Bartlett’s production is the characterisation. The action is relentless and rarely gives us pause to reflect on the character’s inner lives. For Camus, the plague was a philosophical testing ground which laid bare the absurdity of life, and you never truly get this sense in Bartlett’s production. Joseph Grand (Burt Caesar) is no longer a frustrated novelist obsessively rewriting the first sentence of his magnum opus – one of the most striking images of futility in the novel. The citizens of Oran no longer pack into the cinemas to see the same film on endless repeat or attend weekly performances of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Tarrou’s (Martin Turner) edgy and difficult morality is simplified into a general benevolence; his backstory is cut; and his relationship with Rieux loses much of its power. The ending of Camus’s novel brought me close to tears when, amid celebrations over the defeat of the plague, Rieux realises “that there would no longer be any peace possible for himself.” Bartlett’s handling of this aspect of the novel, on the other hand, left me resolutely dry-eyed.

Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly more to praise than critique. As with much of Bartlett’s work, the play’s minimalism works a treat. The veteran director wisely chose not to attempt any gory representation of the plague’s symptoms onstage, instead relying on Camus’s vivid prose and Dinah Mullen’s excellent sound design to leave much to the imagination yet make certain scenes almost unwatchable. Though there were no showy performances – Camus insists his novel is about human decency rather than individual heroism – Powell was perfect as Rieux, an all-too-human protagonist who tirelessly fights a losing battle against the spread of the disease.

This is certainly a slick and highly relevant revival that neatly sidesteps many of the problems of literary adaptations. For those new to Camus’s classic novel it easily gets to the heart of the key thematic concerns while also proving a gripping watch. Those who have read the book may share my disappointment at some of Bartlett’s omissions, but, after all, protesting that “it’s not as good as the book” is something of a cliché.

The Plague continues at the Arcola Theatre until May 6 2017. Tickets are £12-£22 (or £10 with an Arcola Passport). 




More Writing About Writing: I’m Still Here

Football Match

He takes a heavy book from the loaded shelf. Looks at me with a challenging glint in his eye, why, why write? Good question asked a million times before, and answered by greater minds than mine. Why fiction? Even better, entire books have been written on this subject. Isn’t it all just imitation now? Maybe, but surely every age thinks this and while cracking open a beer, cold in hand, wet, while half watching the pre-kick off preliminaries, teams, stats, managers quotes, previous meetings etc, etc, these were not questions I felt equipped to answer.

He’s articulate where I am coarse, educated in areas where I am apathetic, calm where I am angry, wound up, taut. He thinks. He muses. He moves on to Marxist, Feminist, Electioneering theories. He wants to put literature into context. Modern. Streamlined. Did you know? Did you see? Did you hear? I heard the roar in the stand. Saw the first ball kicked. I know I am swigging beer. Thick. Flat. Branded.

So why write? 

A cross comes in from the far side. I am on the edge of my seat wondering is he actually asking me or preparing to tell me.

What is the point of fiction? Why in this day and age do we still bother?

I am aware I am not speaking. I came to watch football and that is what I intend to do.

You got any crisps? 

     What? 

     Crisps? 

The ball is pumped up the other end of the field, two giant men, well groomed, bearded, jump to claim it. One of them falls to the ground clutching his face, the other looks on in disbelief. My friend continues. Where are all the thinkers, the philosophers, the manifestos, ideals for living? Don’t you think writers just write for other writers? Don’t you think they’ve stopped trying to connect, to put forward ideas?

You sure you got no crisps.

He leaves the living room, taking his pacing; his gesticulating arms, and goes into the kitchen. I tell myself that now would be the time to prepare your rebuttal, now would be the time to iron out the creases in the answers for the defence, to find the modern day Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir. The midfielder brings the ball forward, moving like a dancer, strong, powerful, elegant. A gap opens up, will he go left or right, through the middle. No names come to mind.

Ready Salted or Smokey Bacon? 

     Ready Salted.

A second later a packet of crisps is thrown in anger. Catch. Thanks. Soak the hops with salt. Goal. He sits down next to me and puts his feet up on the table. The replays begin and despite my intentions, my desires, to drink, escape, he has me thinking. Why write? Why fiction?

He takes a swig of his beer, leans back into the deep leather sofa. Literature in its modern form was created…he tails off, or to be more precise I do. He has already claimed my interior monologue with his why write questions, he is not allowed to confuse the issue. I have questions now. Things I want to know. The ball is drilled across the box.

So what would you write? 

     I’m not a writer. 

Goal. Tension rises, I feel as though I am being led into saying well as a writer, which I loathe doing, or into speaking for others, which one should never do, however I want to know what he feels should be being written, so I ask again.

What would you write? 

     Where’s our generations Communist Manifesto? 

     You want to write a new one? 

     No, no, I want new ideas, something relevant to our time, I want…

Some sort of universal truth? 

     Not exactly…it’s hard to explain.

Photo by Clemcal (Copied from Flickr)
Photo by Clemcal (Copied from Flickr)

Yes. It’s hard to explain. We in the west live in what could easily be described as a secular age. We have science, reason, and logic. For us there are no mysteries. We have facts, honesty, and truth. These though depend on perception, mouldable, corruptible. They come with an attached point of view, and who wants to be slapped in the face with a cold, hard, point of view?

He continues,

Ok. Has a book ever changed your way of thinking? 

     Written recently? 

     It doesn’t matter.

On this we can’t agree, and giving ground could concede or ultimately change the debate. This is a chess match, and right now I am in check. He wants to know a book that has changed my way of thinking. Another goal flies in, I look up, my team is losing now. He is still waiting. My mind is blank.

Just one book, that’s all. 

     I’ll give you five. 

Why the bravado? Boys will be boys I guess. I’ve read hundreds of books. I could reel off anything, but he’ll want proof. He’ll want a few words, a solid explanation. I take a swig of beer, and another, and another.

Surely it’s not that hard.

Demons. The Plague. Nausea. Fight Club. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. Factotum. He cuts me off. He gets it. He sees my point. Then flips it and says,

Well none of those have been written this century though have they?

Of course this is true, but its mouldable, corruptible. Sidestepping I counter by offering, The Road, Cosmopolis, A Death In The Family. Ok. Ok. But why do YOU write? Why is fiction relevant to YOU?

Why? Because I don’t want black and white ‘truth’, I want to make a connection with something else, intangible, grey. Fiction is the fine lines between, the place we go to think, to explore, to stretch our ideas, our manifestos, our escape. It does not need to preach to us, or pressure us; it cajoles, it teases, and draws out a response, a thought, a feeling. Of course I would have felt ridiculous actually saying this, so I shrugged my shoulders, took another swig of beer, and cursed Jesus for the fact that my team had just conceded another goal, for the truth that they were losing.

Turn this shit off will you.

He didn’t. Thankfully he didn’t continue either, I guess he thought he’d won. On my way home something I once read came to mind, access to the artistic universe is more or less the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world. Going further I would say it was for anyone who wishes to try and understand themselves within it. And this is why I write, to understand, to try and make sense. If along the way someone reads this, that or the other, and they feel the same, or it gets them thinking about something, anything, then great, fantastic. If not, well, it wasn’t meant to be, but I’ll still be here, trying to make sense, trying to find a connection, reading, writing.