Arcola Theatre, London – until 8 May 2017
With the horror of Syria fresh on us, and Africa’s travails with Ebola still haunting, this sombre, unforgettable treatment of Albert Camus’ LA PESTE feels urgently present. Neil Bartlett has pared down the novel’s characters to five – the central Dr Rieux played with remarkable balanced strength by Sara Powell, and alongside her Joe Alessi, Burt Caesar, Billy Postlethwaite and Martin Turner as Cottard, Grand, Rambert and Tarrou : I note that for those who know the book, but you don’t need to in order to feel the force of this 85-minute play.
Bartlett – who also directs – stages it with just five chairs and two tables, but within that simplicity all the vigour and surprise we associate with Complicité, where he began. We seem to be the audience in a sports hall (the kind of place, in modern disasters, so often turned into emergency mortuaries), and the characters, led by Dr Rieux, urgently tell the story. “Understanding what happened” is their theme. Recording, remembering, accepting its terrifying truth, recording their city’s journey through death and horror, from the time when like any modern conurbation it was “frenetic and vacant”, hardworking and businesslike and neglectful of fellow-men’s reality.
So first there were the dead rats, merely a nuisance, but soon too many to ignore: corpses underfoot. Then the infection, the bubonic swellings, the gaping agony, the medical arrangements holding good for a while but people “properly unsettled”. Then it grew to quarantine proportions with people outraged, wanting exceptions, a reporter (Postlethwaite, swaggering at first) demanding to be allowed to leave because it isn’t his city anyway. As the horror mounts, the uncoffined dead thrown desperately into pits, he changes, and resolves to stay.
The doctor, and the others, flash back into the work they did, struggles with both practicality and despair; the people begin to find even love “useless, unfit for purpose” in this terrible captivity. A sequence when, invisible, a child dies before them is agonizing. But plagues end: the aftermath is strikingly a mixture of rejoicing and blame and the one hopeful conclusion: “There is more to admire about one’s fellow-citizens than to despise or despair of. Of course it wasn’t a victory. It is what it is: an account of some things that had to be done, and which I am sure will have to be done again…Joy is always under threat”.
The plague bacillus – whether literal, or as Camus may have equally been indicating in that postwar year, political – is only ever dormant. It will be back. But somehow, from this harsh haunting show you emerge into the bustle of East London encouraged.