Startlingly relevant even now, The Plague is Neil Bartlett’s stage adaptation of the Camus classic La Peste – a novel published in 1947, trying to make sense of the plague of fascism that nearly overwhelmed the globe. It is a story of human struggle, personal sacrifice, and the battle to stay hopeful in adversity.
It follows the steady outbreak of plague (“everybody knows that it’s been eradicated from our part of the world”) that turns into a critical emergency as the disease spreads, eventually causing the city to be quarantined. What begins with Dr Rieux noticing a rat leads to someone experiencing an unexpected fever following a sore throat; as the first deaths start to mount there is increasing panic and looting, before everyone starts to focus more on helping the sick (and getting rid of the dead). The hunt begins for a serum that should cure the disease, but will it be found in time?
The 90-minute production is staged very simply: two desks set up with chairs for all five cast members, and some microphones available for certain scenes. It begins with the characters set up for an official inquiry, initially answering questions and then gradually showing more events of the plague. There are still references to the inquiry throughout, as Dr Rieux tells the story and brings in the relevant witnesses – and there are also moments aside from this where choruses voice what people must have been thinking at that particular moment in the timeline. This is an interesting and engaging way to ensure the messages from the novel are maintained onstage, without developing contrived dialogue between characters; it also adds some variety to the monologues from Dr Rieux and the regular scenes. The straight-through nature of the production is also to be applauded, as it ensures none of the tension is lost.
There are no visuals of the plague taking its victims, instead this is left to the imagination; ultimately this approach is far more effective than trying to show the ravages of disease onstage, as the audience can terrify themselves with their own graphic thoughts. Dinah Mullen’s sound design also helps out here, for example with a blood-curdling scream added to the mix at key moments. Also, as the whole idea of the plague is actually a metaphor rather than something to take literally, I think it’s important to keep it as bare and abstract as possible.
The novel has a large number of characters, including a narrator, however Bartlett has condensed this down to five for the play: Dr Rieux (Sara Powell), Mr Cottard (Joe Alessi), Jean Tarrou (Martin Turner), Mr Grand (Burt Caesar) and Raymond Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite). They work well together as an ensemble, making the choruses especially striking. Interestingly, despite Camus’ original stating that all of these characters are white men, Bartlett’s script is more flexible – and this production has a mixture of ethnicities and the substitution of one woman. Powell masterfully leads the action as Dr Rieux, encapsulating the doctor’s pain at being separated from her dying wife alongside an exhausted determination to help the city’s inhabitants.
It is an important piece for our times, as a reminder that evil is bound to lurk somewhere in the shadows before finding an ideal time to strike – but also that hope paired with resistance should prevail in the end. For a while at least…
My verdict? A vital piece of theatre that breathes new life into a still relevant text – a must-see production.
The Plague runs at the Arcola Theatre until 6 May 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.