Staging a Plague

Neil Bartlett was Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith from 1994 to 2005. Since then he has created acclaimed work with Artangel, the National Theatre and for festivals across the UK. Here he writes about the inspiration for his new stage adaptation of The Plague, playing at Arcola from 5 April to 6 May 2017.

Albert Camus’ existentialist shocker La Peste (The Plague) was published in France in 1947. It was an immediate bestseller, striking a powerful chord in a country which was struggling to find adequate ways to talk about the fascist ‘plague’ that had so recently overwhelmed it. It is a book filled with images of contagion, chaos and denial, but it is also a testament to courage, hope and the possibility of choice.

I’m not sure I’d ever re-opened my copy since I was an angry, idealistic and book-devouring teenager, but in the dark days of last June, with everybody around me talking about catastrophe, fear and division as if they were the new conditions of our daily life, some memory of the story and its impact on me made me pick it again. Immediately, I was struck by how uncannily the story can be read as both inhabiting its original setting – French colonial Algeria in the 1940s – and escaping from that setting completely. The ‘plague’ seemed to be happening not in the past, but in a city which could easily be mapped across all the cities of contemporary Europe. Infection, invasion, panic, closed borders… this may be a classic novel, but re-reading it often felt like watching the ten o’clock news.

And then, on almost the last page of the book, I found the thing I need most of all when I’m considering adapting a novel for the stage: the one-line answer as to why I have dared to try and do such a thing in the first place. One of the survivors of the plague, looking back as objectively as they can over its horrors and evasions, declares against all the odds that the most profound lesson to be learnt during a time of collective catastrophe is that (and I quote my own translation) ‘there is more to admire about people than to despise or despair of’.

The sentence is a shocking one to hear. Can it possibly – in 2017 – still be true? Camus cannot provide us with the answer to that question, but he can (and does) insist that we look it straight in the eye. I closed the book, and set to work. Tonight, ten months later, my new staging of The Plague opens at Arcola Theatre.