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). 

What Would Genet Think?: Deathwatch at the Print Room

Danny Lee Wynter, Tom Varey and Joseph Quinn in the Print Room's production of André Gide's Death Watch. Photo courtesy of Marc Brenner.
Danny Lee Wynter, Tom Varey and Joseph Quinn in the Print Room’s production of Jean Genet’s Death Watch. Photo courtesy of Marc Brenner.

I’ve been experiencing a lot of odd coincidences recently: what Jung termed “synchronicities” or “acausal parallelisms”. My most recent synchronicity happened last Friday, which was, you may remember, 15th April 2016. I was to watch Jean Genet’s Deathwatch that day – the day on which, thirty years earlier, Genet died at the age of 75. It felt like a striking quirk of timing (all the more striking because I had meant to see the production the evening before, but hadn’t been able to).

The ghost of Genet was therefore in my thoughts as I made my way to The Print Room in Notting Hill. He overtook me, forcing me to consider, as I watched this staging of his first play, not what I made of the production, but what he himself would have made it. (I write this despite the suggestion of Genet’s contemporary Roland Barthes that we should not “give an Author to a text”; in doing so, Barthes warns, we “impose upon that text a stop clause”, we “close the writing”.) Imagine Genet, an apologetic-looking man, his eyebrows pulled low over his eyes, the smooth expanse of his forehead creased into a frown, sitting in the theatre beside me. What would he have thought of the enormous cage in the centre of the stage, the string of bulbs and the red curtain resembling a circus or a wrestling ring? Would this hazy, smoke-filled arena, illuminated by an intricate lighting system overhead, have appealed to him as the setting of his prison-based drama, Haute Surveillance?

I suspect not. “No clever lighting,” his stage direction informs us curtly. He intended the costumes to be “in violent colours”. Here, however, we have three men clad in beige. We have a complex rotation of lights: spotlights, brilliantly lit squares, strobes. Director Geraldine Alexander may be forgiven for ignoring some of the more impractical of Genet’s stage directions. “The actors must aim for heavy gestures; or such as flash like the fastest lightning, too rapid to be taken in,” he insists. And, halfway through the play: “Starting now, these three young people will have the size, the gestures, the voice and the faces of men who are fifty or sixty years old.” Talented though the trio of actors playing Genet’s cellmates (Tom Varey as “Green-Eyes”, Joseph Quinn as Maurice and Danny Lee Wynter as “Lefranc”) are, they do not confound the rules of human biology by acting with movements “too rapid to be taken in”, or ageing several decades before our eyes.

The discomfort of Genet, observing this production, would have been exacerbated not only by the atmospheric lighting (the work of designer David Plater), or by the actors’ inability to conform to his eccentric directions, but by the play itself. Unlike The Maids, say, or The Blacks, Deathwatch contains within it several inconsistencies – inconsistencies of plot, of language, of intention – that have inhibited its recognition as a truly great piece of twentieth century drama.

Here I defer to Edmund White, who devotes a handful of pages to the creation of Deathwatch in his fascinating chronicle of Genet’s life. White writes:

This play is a confusingly transitional work. At points it appears to be a naturalistic prison drama, complete with an apt use of criminals’ argot and sociological observations on the relationship between prisoner and guard and the oral grapevine by which prisoners inform one another of their own glorious exploits. But elsewhere the characters suddenly break into unconvincing arias in which, using the narrator’s voice from Miracle of the Rose, they explain the poetic and metaphysical impact of their situation.

It is in the jarring juxtaposition of the real with the surreal that the play founders, and it is in this, too, that Alexander’s production loses its impact. The leaps between the beige, contained conversation of the prison cell and the strange unreality of the action beyond the bars feels unconvincing – or, perhaps, not unconvincing enough.

White goes on to describe Genet’s difficulty in writing the play; he drafted it four times with different titles, altered emphases and the bizarre excision of crucial scenes. He observes that, unlike Genet’s later plays, Deathwatch fails to realise its author’s many intentions. It is “unable to contain these different elements: an insider’s report on prison life; a philosophical investigation of time, volition and sexual authenticity; and a purely abstract patterning of the prisoners’ movements on stage. The plot itself is hard to follow.”

The plot is hard to follow, a curious investigation into the dynamic of three jailbirds and their respective pasts. In Genet’s deliberate confusion of reality with unreality, White reads an autobiographical intent. “Perhaps,” White suggests, “he was afraid of any clear-cut interpretations: submitted so often to psychological probing and categorization he had good reason to resist any effort to decode him or his work.”

The compelling claustrophobia of Alexander’s production, the schizophrenic leaps of the actors, the occasional lyricism of David Rudkin’s translation: none of this can salvage what is, at its heart, an unsettled play. Jean Genet, sitting in the auditorium on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, would have suffered through the performance, and not simply because the production fails to abide by his bizarre directions, not simply as a result of the indecision written into the text itself. His dissatisfaction would have been more deep-rooted, and is described with brusque poignancy in a note regarding his Complete Works, made in 1967. Of Deathwatch, he wrote:

Since I am expressing my desires, I’d like this play never to be staged again. It’s difficult for me to remember when and under what circumstances I wrote it. Probably out of boredom or unintentionally. That’s all – the facts elude me.

Genet has done Barthes’ work for him. He has toppled the image of himself as “Author-God”, undermining the idea of Sartre’s “Saint Genet” in admitting the failure of his own creation. But what does this mean for the rest of us? The theatregoers, perplexed by the play’s inconsistencies and Genet’s mixed feelings about its production. Should we condemn the staging of this part-symbolic, part-naturalistic, prickly, inconclusive text, a staging which goes against its creator’s explicit instruction? Or should we admire its bold revival? I’m inclined to argue for the latter. Not least because, a matter of months before he died, Genet was working on yet another version of Deathwatch with director Michel Dumoulin, an undertaking which seems to signify a change of heart – as well as allowing for a thrilling synchronicity of dates three decades on.

Deathwatch continues at the Print Room until May 7. Tickets are from £20 (£16 concessions).