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The Plague – a disturbingly familiar story of the world in crisis

Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ remarkably resonant work is told through five characters using only the wording from the novel

24 July, 2020 — By Lucy Popescu

Sara Powell in the Arcola Theatre’s production of The Plague. Photo: Alex Brenner

ALBERT CAMUS’ novel The Plague has been one of the most widely read books of lockdown. It’s newly adapted and directed for radio by Neil Bartlett based on his 2017 production at the Arcola Theatre. The themes are disturbingly familiar.

Bartlett focuses on five of Camus’ characters and uses his original wording. The story opens with Doctor Rieux (Sara Powell) and her discovery of a bleeding rat. Soon after, the caretaker of her apartment block dies.

As Dr Rieux becomes increasingly concerned by the proliferation of dead rats, she is visited by journalist Raymond Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite) who wants her to help him with his report on the living conditions of the Arab population. Rieux cuts through the prejudice and observes that he should be condemning the current conditions and focusing on the rats.

As the disease spreads there is a lack of reliable information and the authorities are slow to act. When a quarantine is finally imposed, the figures regarding fatalities are delayed. Once the city gates close, the shady Mr Cottard (Joe Alessi) starts profiteering from the smuggling of individuals, like Rambert, who are desperate to be reunited with loved ones.

Camus’ work is remarkably resonant. A man hoards jam, masks are considered “useless” by some but “inspire confidence in others”. As the months pass, there are demonstrations. Innovative serums arrive, but so do new strains of the disease. At Christmas, there are “empty shops, no children; nothing except the private and disgusting celebrations of the rich”.

Gradually, though, hope prevails. People learn to work together and realise that a collective response is better than selfish attempts to survive or profit. Rambert realises the shamefulness of “wanting happiness for yourself while other people are dying,” and joins the communal effort. Throughout, Rieux is helped by frontline volunteers Jean Tarrou (Jude Aduwudike) and Mr Grand (Colin Hurley).

Despite the bleak subject it’s a compelling drama with notes of optimism. Camus underlines the importance of bearing witness to injustice and reminds us that in dark times “there is more to admire about people than there is to despise”.

The Plague, BBC Radio 4, 3pm, July 26.

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