The Plague at the Arcola Theatre review ****


The Plague

Arcola Theatre, 27th April 2017

I booked this not knowing quite what to expect. I couldn’t really visualise how this was going to be staged but was intrigued at the idea. Well more fool me. Neil Bartlett and the cast have done a wonderful job in bringing Camus’s parable, written in 1947 after the Nazi “plague” that had engulfed Europe in the Second World War, to life. Given Mr Bartlett’s previous work I should probably have never doubted it would be a success.

Five of Camus witness characters, Dr Rieux (Sara Powell), Tarrou, an unspecified businessman/official (Martin Turner), Rambert, a journalist (Billy Postlethwaite), Gotthard, an unstable petty crook (Joe Alessi) and Grand, a widowed clerk (Burt Caesar) begin reciting their “objective” testimony through microphones in the manner of a Select Commttee appearance. This testimony is returned to throughout the 90 minute play, but is overtaken with “subjective” individual narratives that track the emergence of the mysterious plague, the reaction of the authorities, the quarantining of the unspecified city, the devastation wrought by the contagion and the eventual and surprising disappearance of the plague and the return to normality, a sort of triumph of good over evil.

With a non-naturalistic bare set (and just a handful of props), it is left to the words (and some deft lighting and sound), and the way in which they are delivered, (with some effective use of the actors combined in a chorus at key points), to very effectively conjure up the images (the death of the rats, the nature of the deaths, the increasing desperation and panic in the city, the failure of a serum, the attempted cover up by authorities, the arbitrary nature of the plague). It is not to hard to spot the influence of Mr Bartlett’s early days in Complicite.

So a very smart piece of work both in presenting the still relevant allegory of Camus’s novel and in creating a sense of unease and foreboding which resonants beyond the play itself. I purchased the text and a quick whizz through it shows just how clever Mr Bartlett has been in adapting the novel and concisely delivering a parable for our own times. I have a feeling that when I come to look back at this year’s theatre-going this will rank very highly. After all the most effective drama is that which sticks in your head, and this is already doing exactly that. It has deservedly sold out I think but worth keeping on the radar should it ever re-appear.

And a reminder. For £50 you can buy an Arcola passport which gets you 5 tickets. That is just bonkersly good value. A tenner per trip for work of the quality that is turned out here. Just buy one. Now.


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