14 Sep – 20 Oct 2018
The Outsider by Albert Camus
The Outsider [or L’Etranger if you’re feeling continental] is Albert Camus’s first and perhaps most famous novel. A deeply interior novel, it has never been performed on stage in a significant production for much the same reason that Das Kapital hasn’t enjoyed a second life as a Broadway musical: sure you can do it, but should you?
Of all the theatres in London to take the challenge on, it’s unsurprising that it was Notting Hill’s The Coronet which made the attempt. The theatre has always had an admirable appetite for artistically challenging projects and the stark grandeur of the weathered performance space gives The Outsider some serious atmosphere, which considering the lack of formal ‘action’ in the narrative is a godsend.
The Outsider [both novel and play] is narrated by Meursalt, a seemingly emotionless Frenchman living in inter-war colonial whose borderline sociopathic detachment from life is oddly contrasted with a genuine epicurean zeal for its pleasures. After the funeral of his mother, where he expresses no outward grief, Meursault drifts through Algiers at a remove: working, drinking coffee, conversing and enjoying a notably physical affair with an ex-co-worker. So far, so stereotypically French, but after an act of shocking, near motiveless violence; he finds himself on trial, as much for his societal disaffection as his crime.
The novel places you entirely within Meursault’s consciousness, so it’s on his casting that play lives or dies. Thankfully Sam Frenchum, who mildly resembles Sam Riley, brings Meursault to life through a series of tiny expressions and gestures which suggest a deep volcanic stratum of feeling boiling under his glassy exterior. Director Abbey Wright commits to a stark, concrete stage set, suggestive of a cell, with any props carried by the actors themselves putting the audience further into the empty transitory world that Meursault moves in. Whilst this makes artistic sense regrettably the relentless focus can be a tad draining. Whenever Meursault’s friend, the gangsterish, woman beating Raymond [authors had different concepts of comic relief in the 1940s] played with thuggish brio by Sam Alexander is on stage, the play lights up. Abusive, human and oddly likeable, he is perhaps the closet the real world comes to forcing its way through The Outsider’s rigidly drawn lines with his brute humanity contrasting sharply with Meursault’s cool disaffection.
There is a certain unavoidable issue that academics get hung up on with The Outsider and it lies in its racial politics. In the novel the victim of Meursault’s random violence is simply referred to as ‘the Arab’ and is dehumanised to the point of plot device. It can be argued that his silence is intentional as a foil to Meursault himself, though the inferred murky morality has clearly left poet and scriptwriter Ben Okri feeling uncomfortable. Rather than change the text he takes a third option by screening The Insider, a short film by Mitra Tabrizian, in which The Arab describes his life and his guilt about his failure to protect his sister [though does not mention his feelings about inspiring The Cure’s first single]. It is screened from 18.15 each evening at The Print Room and also during the play’s interval and whilst a perfectly effective piece of work is inessential for the broader narrative itself.
The potential for disaster adapting The Outsider is [ironically] dramatic, but Wright has pulled off a guarded success with Frenchum due particular recognition. It’s not the easiest ride, considering the nature of the narrative requires significant focus on the part of the audience, but if it’s afforded that concentration then all of Camus’s subtleties can be seen as though through a shimmering heat haze on some far away beach.