Simon Ward reviews The Plague at The Arcola Theatre
Albert Camus’s 1947 novel ‘La Peste’ uses the symbol of the plague to discuss France’s wartime occupation and her colonial relationships in Algeria and elsewhere. A nation may be infected for a time, then recover; but, as we learn, the plague bacteria remain dormant until the next outbreak. The Nazis may have been expelled, but Marine Le Pen’s Front National is riding high in the polls. The moral response, be it cowardice, courage or somewhere in between, remains in question whether the plague is at its peak or biding its time.
Neil Bartlett’s adaptation hopes that we will find that these ideas resonate in our own troubled times, and our own city. The play is presented as a sort of testimony to an inquiry, with 5 characters reporting on their experience once the crisis has passed. This is a promising opening premise. The set is bare: tables, chairs, some papers and white coats. The tables are a key feature – they form lab tables, desktops and deathbeds.
As they start to recount their versions of events, the characters gradually begin acting out the parts they played as the plague began to take a grip on the city. Imperceptible at first – a dead rat apparently planted as a prank in an apartment block stairwell, before long there are so many that you can’t walk anywhere without crushing another corpse under foot. Then it moves on from rats. The doctor finds patients with signs of plague, but is told to keep it quiet to avoid starting a panic. But as the human toll keeps rising inexorably it can’t be covered up any longer and the city is closed off, effectively in a siege but the enemy is within.
The chief protagonist is Dr Rieux, played by Sara Powell, whose painstaking account forms the backbone of the play. Her efforts to cope with the impossible workload and the demands of dealing with patients whom she cannot help are made all the more challenging by the fact that her own wife is ill and dying away from the city and she barely has time to grieve.
The other characters are perhaps less well-rounded or sufficiently differentiated, although the acting is uniformly good from a strong and diverse cast. Eventually a serum is found and the city can begin to move on. Dr Rieux insists that living through the plague brings the knowledge that there is more to admire than to despise in one’s fellow citizens.
For Camus completists there is a glancing reference to the killing of an Arab described in ‘L’Étranger’. At the end of the play the characters resume their original positions and restart their testimony, a nod perhaps to Camus’s take on the myth of Sisyphus.
The writing is unapologetically non-naturalistic and symbolist. The characters are more like types than individuals. The setting is everywhere and nowhere. It is more interesting than emotionally engaging, and perhaps less resonant as a result.
11th April 2017
The Plague runs at the Arcola until 5th May, 2017