A disease with a deeper meaning
IDIDN’T KNOW Albert Camus’s novel La Peste before seeing Neil Bartlett’s adaptation. So I did something that is difficult to do in these days of 24-hour streamed information. I took the gripping plot about a French town infected by a virulent, deadly disease, at face value. The story first establishes the rhythms of life in a provincial metropolis. Central among the five main characters is Dr Riuex (Sara Powell), increasingly aware of unexplained illness as she goes about her business. Dead rats are discovered in stairwells. People are starting to die. Riuex’s attempt to raise the alarm is met with indifference and denial.
Yet, as the outbreak rises to epidemic proportions, and the town is sealed off, there is a nagging sense that Camus’ plague is in fact an allegory. The evening is framed by the ritual of testimony and tribunal, which is a big clue. The fact that the novel was written in 1947 is another.
Those who testify are not just describing the deadly progress of the disease, but the way it pressures those who it hasn’t yet killed into revealing aspects of their characters that they would rather no one knew about — including themselves.
The strength of Bartlett’s monochromatic and terrifically acted production
Billy Postlethwaite, Burt Caesar and Martin Turner is its simplicity. And, whatever other kinds of plague this play prompts you to think of, the literal events generate an almost unbearable tension.
The physical effect of the disease is vividly evoked. So it’s hard to recommend the evening as an entertainment. But as a piece of theatre that provokes us to find meaning and significance beyond its own compelling story, there is probably nothing better out there