The immediate years following the Second World War proved to be fertile period for the Arts and literature in particular, as the rise of fascism was deconstructed and speculation regarding the future was foremost on writers’ minds. After all, those who didn’t learn from history were doomed to repeat it… On one end of the spectrum was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and at the other, Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. And then there’s The Plague… Written in 1947, Albert Camus’ novel follows the breakdown of civilisation after ‘an ordinary town’ succumbs to an infestation. Adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett, his version of The Plague has been condensed to five main characters: Dr Rieux (Sara Powell); Jean Tarrou (Martin Turner); Mr Grand (Burt Caesar); Mr Cottard (Joe Alessi) and Raymond Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite).
Rather than follow the novel verbatim, Bartlett gives the narrative an immediacy by setting it a press conference – the officials who supervised action during the outbreak recalling the day by day incidents over the past year. Still raw from the recent events, each person tells their part of the story, often asking one of the rest of the panel to verify dates or order of events. As the play progresses, their movement frees up and what’s initially an emotive, if static account, becomes fully-fledged piece of theatre.
Other recents plays in London such as The Kid Stays In The Picture adopt the use of a handful of actors with microphones to tell a complex story. But while The Kid is a paean to cimema and an uncritical account of real events, The Plague – even though it is a work of fiction – has gravitas in abundance and the audience effortlessly identifies itself with the dilemmas the characters face. This is theatre at its simplest and sublime.
All the actors are excellent in their respective roles, but Powell’s Rieux who struggles to keep her vulnerabilty in check by the job at hand, especially elicits our interest and sympathy.
So what is The Plague really about? Is it a veiled allegory about turning a blind eye to fascism or fundamentalism? Or is it really as the title suggests – man versus nature, the result of neglect of the environment? Certainly, in Britain today, the change from weekly to fortnightly refuse collections has led to much criticism, as numbers of vermin reported have increased by 50%. Even without immediate obvious symptoms, the diseases they are capable of carrying en masse are frightening and in these times of fiscal hardships, it is doubtful if just like the play, the authorities would be equipped intellectually or resource-wise to deal with such an eventuality.
In any case, what The Plague reminds us off is the the sliver of ‘civilised’ behaviour that holds society together. In the face of adversity, it doesn’t take much to push people over the edge and for the ‘viral’ traits of fear, hysteria and self-interest to take hold. On those days like those, the psychological repercussions are as much to be feared as disease itself…
© Michael Davis 2017
The Plague runs at Arcola Theatre until 6th May 2017.