Wednesday, 12 April 2017
Review The Plague
after La Peste by Albert Camus
Adapted by Neil Bartlett
The Cycles Of History
A couple of days after Marine Le Pen, French presidential candidate, denied French state culpability for the rounding up of Jews and imprisonment in the Vélodrome D'Hiver in 1942, the French cycling stadium, TLT and her four wheeled buggy went along to Dalston to watch Neil Bartlett's adaptation of the 1947 novel The Plague.
It was rather eerie watching and hearing this tribunal-style drama and chronicle of contagious disease, written as fiction by Albert Camus, a metaphor for amongst other things, the step-by-step poisoning of the atmosphere before the occupation of France and its colonies and the reaction of the population including post-war denial.
Of course there is always the question "What would you do?" and there is currently a play touring a about the occupation of Jersey where some UK citizens hardly acquitted themselves with glory.
But TLT knows for a fact that it was far more step-by-step - refugee Jews were already rounded up in 1940 before the German army invaded Paris under the pretext that they were originally from "Greater Germany". In reality the were mostly stateless Jews and the women were put in the "Vél' d'Hiv'".
While this round up was more hysteria by the authorities after the invasion of France than direct murderous intent, it was the first step towards isolating a portion of the Parisian population.
We say this not to boast about our knowledge (although maybe that's part and parcel of being a reviewer ;)) or to condemn the French. In this play (we haven't read the novel), Camus, a Franco-Algerian was probably reflecting on the fate of the Algerian city of Oran. But it also seemed to us to trace the steps towards and then away from what had happened to Paris during the Second World War, the capital of France and a symbol of something much more than France.
The play begins like a modern press conference or, superficially, public enquiry: five citizens sit at a long table with microphones in front of them. Doctor Rieux (Sara Powell) , Mr Grand (Burt Caesar), the town hall registrar of births, marriages and deaths, Raymond Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite), a journalist, Jean Tarrou (Martin Turner), a seemingly affluent outsider with Spanish friends who lives in a hotel and Mr Cottard (Joe Alessi), a doomsayer who discovers an unexpected talent for profiteering during the plague.
The Doctor leads the enquiry from her notes, setting the agenda, as she relates the initial signs of dying rats, the first victims including an infected landlord and eventually how the city becomes a closed off ghetto and a police state.
We couldn't help thinking, despite a well-paced production directed by the book adaptor, Neil Bartlett, using the lighting of Jack Weir and sound of Dinah Mullen to maximum effect, this felt like a radio play. In a way that we never felt, for example, when many years ago we watched Peter Weiss's verbatim courtroom drama The Investigation with Rwandan and Congolese actors.
We also felt that some of the ironies and ambiguities, which surely are present in the novel, are lost on stage.
For example, the armed police entering the poorer areas, where "Arab" immigrants also live, and dragging out people, to the pleas of their families. Surely it is also about the potential for the abuse of and settling of scores with some of the uninfected under a pretext of being infected?
The rat may also well be a carrier of plague but its association with Jews and Soviet Communists would not have been lost on a 1947 readership.
Maybe it works better in musical adaptation as a trawl of youtube uncovered a 1960s' choral work The Plague using some of the novel's words.
Still the sincerely intense diverse cast gives the sense of a modern city. In fact, the term city state, with many cities now separate business entities, does not go amiss in our times and the carrying on, having to stop for some kind of hell and then resuming business as usual has a clear resonance.
We wondered whether we could even detect a more literary antecedent in its ironies with the 17th century La Fontaine satiric fable Les Animaux Malades De La Peste (The Animals Sick Of The Plague).
There's certainly a poetic rhythm to the play at the Arcola Dr Rieux has seen the writhings of the dying, joined a committee, kept knowledge back along with other doctors, watched as the panic circulated in rumours and eventually emerged in the newspapers, the setting up of quarantine camps and experienced the failure of a pharmaeutical serum, seeing a child die in agony.
Finally she expediently recites scripted blandishments to aid the psychological reconstruction of a society and to fit in with the world status quo, saying: "... when you live through the time of plague, ... there is more to admire about people than to despise or despair of." This is an intense and thoughtful play, even if as a theatrical experience, not totally successful and we award an amber/green light.