Albert Camus wrote La Peste in 1947, likening the rise of Nazism in Europe to a plague, and the novel became a classic almost immediately. Today in 1917, director Neil Bartlett has adapted the novel for our times at a moment when the global landscape is shifting in alarming ways.
The Plague at the Arcola Theatre begins with two tables on stage set out as if at a public enquiry, with some desk lamps and chairs but nothing else on stage. The characters appear one at a time, some with papers in hand, the woman Dr Rieux (Sara Powell) the main focus, referring back to her notes and reporting as clinically as possible what has happened. At certain moments somebody might take a microphone as if to emphasise a point, but the lighting and the set remain minimal and this was the director’s intention, in order to emphasise Camus’s words (none of the words deviate from Camus’s original).
Dr Rieux stands to address us all in the audience and starts to describe what happened at first, how seeing one dead rat one day turns into seeing many rats falling over and dying, choking blood, in the street and how the disease spreads to humans, soon hundreds a day. As well as the doctor, who is given much humanity and strength by Sara Powell, we meet amongst others Mr Grand (Burt Caesar), who is attempting in vain to write his estranged wife a letter, and the journalist Raymond Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite) who becomes trapped within the city walls once they are closed to prevent further spreading of the plague.
With the terrifying velocity of the disease, we are swept along with the need to know what ultimately happens. The sound (by Dinah Mullen) gives a background of sirens, the frantic atmosphere of chaos, the squeaking of rats and then people as they are asphyxiated by the disease. A piano chord is played out at intervals which measures out the passing time. As things worsen, and the disease moves from the poor to the more affluent areas, the dead are lying in the streets, nameless, and then instead of proper burials they are burnt in ovens. We watch throughout the night as a serum is given to a dying child, which only serves to make him die more slowly, and we are there when Mr Grand finally starts to lose it. It paints a dark picture of how people survived during this time, and how the collective consciousness changed. “It made us forget what we knew.”
Then, as suddenly as it takes hold, the plague starts to lessen. “Hope is so cruel”, says the doctor, but hope never dies, even at times of such fear and, despite the fact that loved ones have died, people must survive, they must carry on. As the gates to the city are re-opened and our characters hear celebrations, Dr Rieux explains that that was the moment she decided to write everything down, to bear witness to what had happened during this time: “There is more to admire about one’s fellow citizens than to despise or despair of”.
Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Camus’s allegory is chillingly relevant today, and it is disturbing to witness how quickly the situation gets out of control, and normal behaviours are forgotten. The Plague works on its audience in many different, personal ways however I believe Bartlett is really asking us to beware, to speak out against injustices and cruelties as we see them. After all, in Rieux’s closing speech, the plague is only lying dormant, until it once more “rouses its rats and sends them forth to die in some unsuspecting city”.
By Hatty Uwanogho