The appearance of The Plague, at London’s Arcola Theatre, seems uncannily prescient, coming at a time when the world holds its breath as the gung-ho superpowers muscle up to each other and upstart nations threaten nuclear war.
I’m not sure what sort of inside track the theatre’s artistic director, Mehmet Ergen, has on future world events but his programming of this terrifying, nightmarish, drama couldn’t have been better timed.
The Plague, Albert Camus’ allegory about the devastating effects of Nazism in World War Two, has been adapted for the stage by Neil Bartlett who uses the author’s powerful, original words to create a dark and visionary masterpiece.
You can’t hear this chilling play’s final words without a deep sense of foreboding and a shiver down your spine.
Bartlett, who also directs, strips the story back to its bare bones, presenting an ensemble of five who are giving evidence to an enquiry about a horrifying plague, carried by rats, that came out of nowhere and devastated a city before finally being quashed.
Their testimony comes from personal accounts and factual reports, this group of survivors reliving a year’s journey into the bowels of hell before finding freedom.
During one of the most harrowing and upsetting moments we hear the tortured screams of a young boy in his death throes, experiments on his body prolonging and exaggerating his agony thanks to a useless mercy serum he had been given.
Sara Powell’s earnest Dr Rieux is one of the first to notice the rats, watching their agonising deaths, blood oozing from every orifice, in the street and apartment buildings.
She takes her concerns to the authorities who brush her aside – until the local population start to be affected in increasing numbers.
Then comes the lock-down with no-one allowed in or out of the city, the “quarantine camps,” the lime pits to dispose of the corpses, and then the ovens, constantly belching their odorous smoke into the sky. All the while the people are panicking, rioting, looting, doing what they must to stay alive.
We meet the others as they tell their stories, and recall the parts they played during the struggle to survive.
There’s Burt Caesar, as Mr Grand, the keeper of records, his deep, rich voice perfect for recounting the roll call of death; young investigative journalist Raymond Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite) who finds himself caught up in the biggest story of his career; Martin Turner’s heroic Jean Tarrou who sacrifices his own safety to help others and Joe Alessi as the shady racketeer Cottard who we never really get to fully understand.
The cast give profoundly intense performances with pacy direction from Bartlett that doesn’t let up the tension for a second.
Will humanity survive? Does the plague ever, truly go away or is it there, lurking under the surface, waiting for its moment to return? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Absolutely unmissable.
The Plague is running at the Arcola Theatre until May 6.
Writer & director Neil Bartlett takes the literary classic, The Plague, and turns it into a chilling and visionary masterpiece for the theatre.