Arcola Theatre, London – until 5 May 2017
Albert Camus wrote La Peste in retrospect, 1947, after the time when Europe had been convulsed, mown over by Fascism and Nazi Germany. It was an immediate success. As Brecht also observed tellingly at the end of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 1941, shortly being revived at the Donmar, things come round again. Just when you think humans may have learnt something from history, off we go again.
We seem to be living in just such a re-run now. So Camus’s extraordinary metaphor and description of a city ravaged by rats and plague sits very aptly inside our own paranoid times where fear and loathing, prejudice and bigotry have taken hold like some deadly pandemic. Clever Neil Bartlett to have spotted its application and even more astute to have adapted and directed it so brilliantly reverberating at every turn with the atmosphere of today, especially where facts have given way to fake news. `Normal’ life seems to have been hijacked with dire consequences on our mental functioning and perception of our daily lives.
Camus originally wrote the novel as an eye witness account with the local doctor at its centre describing his and the diverse responses of other town residents as pressure builds. Neil Bartlett sets it up as a piece of tribunal theatre, spare, minimalist, the actors sitting at a long table with mics before them as a kind of chorus, only stepping away in order to tell some part of their own personal story. Neil’s doctor is also a woman, Dr Rieux played by Sara Powell.
In one fell swoop, therefore this Plague becomes a play for our day as one by one local individuals describe how they, their behaviour and their town changed as rising panic took over.
`Well I think the best way of getting to know a town is to say how people work there, how they love each other and how they die’, says Dr Rieux at the beginning of her evidence and at the tail end of the 80 minute long play. Thus the cycle begins again…
So many aspects of Neil Bartlett’s script strike home, whether it’s the social strata reflections – the plague, of course, starts in the poorest `Arab’ part of the town, gradually moving up into the richer, more middle class areas – or the journalist hungry for a good story retreating to the bar when the crisis truly strikes.
One of the most telling episodes comes when the local authorities, taking evidence from Dr Rieux and his concerns that people should know what is facing them, decide to keep things quiet, not to name it as a plague, to keep the town from panicking. But gradually, the numbers of the dead and dying inexorably rise. And the decision is taken to close the gates and cut the town off.
Somehow, Bartlett keeps a steady balance in the description of the descent and collapse into `unnatural’ times and its desperate sense of urgency with cool dispassionate storytelling led by Sara Powell’s conscientious Dr Rieux, alive to the human catastrophe around her but also its political implications.
Telling portraits come from Billy Postlethwaite as the journalist, Raymond Rambert, Martin Turner’s Jean Tarrou who in keeping with his own sense of morality volunteers to help Dr Rieux, immediately placing himself in danger. Fine work too from Burt Caesar as a local civil servant and Joe Alessi as an emotionally unstable racketeer, never one to let an opportunity slip past him to make money out of the vulnerable.
In short, this Plague could be applied to any society seized by implacable, inexorable social forces. It speaks to us now eloquently as a warning of reaction and response, yet also as one of hope – an example perhaps of how, one day, plagues can disappear as quickly they come. You just have to hang in there and keep steadfast. Stylish, haunting and deeply theatrical.