A dis­ease with a deeper mean­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THEATRE JOHN NATHAN The Plague


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


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