Arcola Theatre, London – until 6 May 2017
Guest reviewer: Heather Deacon
The Plague by Albert Camus is adapted here by Neil Bartlett into an even more curious, almost dystopian play, showing at the Arcola Theatre until 6th May. In the unnamed town that the five characters inhabit, any hope or joy is promptly quashed and left in a pool of despair on the floor, just like the mysteriously dying rats that plague the streets. It’s not a fun evening, but nonetheless makes for a formidable and incredibly disquieting piece of theatre. Camus’ original was written and set in the 1940s and was known for the way it resonated with the millions struggling to understand the fascism that had overwhelmed their lives and families for many years. The time and city of this adaptation are unspecified, but considering that the five witnesses have sheets of notepaper and newspaper cuttings to aid their retelling of the plague that caused their town to be walled off, we can assume it’s not recent.
From the doctor’s office, the apartment buildings and the gutters through to the temporary hospital in a school, the audience is left to imagine where and when the play takes place. It is noted that the plague is always lurking, a metaphor if ever there was one, so the where and when is deemed unimportant and rather it is the journey and decisions of the inhabitants that take prominence.
This vagueness stretches to every character. Sara Powell’s Dr Rieux who’s trapped in the quarantined city delivers a central performance full of authority and sensibility, promising no emotion but delivering a heap of it. Then there is the ambitious journalist, Rambert, from out of town and pining for his new love beyond the gate. Billy Postlethwaite brings a naivety and thoughtlessness of youth to Rambert, who is to do much growing up in the course of the play. Burt Caesar’s Grand has the most gorgeous baritone that makes his sentimental and guileless inability to write a letter to his lost love the most charming thing in a play that is quite unforgiving in its bid to tell this harrowing tale.
The Plague never lets up on its intensity, which after 80 minutes is a little full on. The few attempts at a little light relief, mainly from the rather compelling Martin Turner, fall flat as the dark quickly creeps back in with another death, another statistic, another philosophical quote spoken in unison. Not recommended for a sunny evening of theatre, but thoroughly recommended to sit through during a storm.