In the introduction to his script, Neil Bartlett writes about the persistent and even pressing relevance of Albert Camus’s La Peste to our modern moment. Set in a French-Algerian town in the 1940s and published in post-WWII France, Camus’s immediate bestseller culminates by championing the idea of bearing witness instead of passively standing by. It’s a concept that does seem urgently relevant to us today: as digital footage now archives each and every incident and hashtags index our worldly events, we continue to question whether these records are simply passive slacktivism. Yet while clever, thoughtful, and at times stirring, The Plague falls short of exploring Camus’s continued and changing meaning today, nor does it fully succeed as a piece of work in its own right.
The complexities and questions around bearing witness are woven through Bartlett’s adapted script. Cleverly, Bartlett transposes Dr Rieux’s chronicle into a press conference, where five main witnesses retell the horrifying events that hit their town. Each character sits at the conference table and strives to understand their role during the plague, while their communication of facts is weighed down with traumatic memory. We the audience are made to be the press, and our chief objective is to get the story.
Particularly striking is the infuriating bureaucratic non-speak Bartlett depicts as civil servants hesitate to impose a quarantine. Middle-of-the-road and vacuous, these words are chilling for their lack of substance. Moreover, they are in stark contrast with Bartlett’s use elsewhere of evocative language that seethes and wafts, evoking the metaphoric plague without reducing it to a more concrete image.
Less remarkable are the chiming piano chords that mark time. Incongruous to the atmosphere of the production, they clang at ill-timed moments and jerk the action along. And while the unison dialogue is both an indication of commonality between characters and reminiscent of a Greek chorus (often emblematic of citizens as a whole), it is slightly too sloppy to justify and ends up being more of a distraction.
The cast of five do well to portray some of the main characters of Camus’s work. Sara Powell’s Dr Rieux is stoic and strong, and Billy Postlethwaite’s Raymond Rambert is cool and nonconformist. But as they tell their stories, they are as a whole reduced too much to archetype, restricting any individualised arch or development of character.
Interestingly, Bartlett uses repetition to swirl up Camus’s writing, aiming to etch it onto modern minds. But the constant repetition of phrases, such as ‘There are more things to admire in men than to despise’ does not amplify their meaning as much as render them more meaningless. Dr Rieux ominously points out the short-term memory of the citizens of Oran, with everyone forgetting the horrors of the plague. Perhaps repetition is not enough to make resonant or incite remembrance – for repetition forms habit, and habit clouds memory.
Habit is the prison the town makes for itself before the plague, and only during the plague does it recognise the meaning of freedom. More theatrical habits could be broken in this adaptation to resuscitate our memories and detach it from being merely a repetition of the novel – in its current form, it is a sturdy reminder of how Camus’s work justifies its status as a classic.
The Plague is on at the Arcola until 6 May 2017. Click here for more details.