Albert Camus’ The Outsider (L’Étranger), is starkly brought to the stage in an adaptation by Ben Okri, Winner of the Man Booker Prize, commissioned by The Print Room at The Coronet. The cavernous, worn features of this theatre subtly enhance this grippingly stark production by director Abbey Wright who brings a chill to the humid air of North Africa.
Intellectually stimulating, emotionally challenging and visually compelling.
The Outsider tells the sorry tale of Mersault (Sam Frenchum) a young Frenchman who works as a shipping clerk in 1940s Algeria. The story opens with the death of his mother in a retirement home some distance from where he lives. His disengaged and unemotional response to this event mystifies everyone and it will be repeatedly used against him in future ordeals. Increasingly involved in the messy life of his friend Raymond (Sam Alexander), he ends up killing a local Arab, for reasons that never extend beyond the effects of the sun. His subsequent trial becomes as much about his nonconformity as it does about the murder charge. As Camus once observed, 'In our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death’.
Frenchum adroitly occupies and dominates the stage throughout and hauntingly sustains an understated, taciturn and intriguing performance of a man at odds with the world. His isolation is both emotional and ideological and is physically demonstrated from the outset as he sits alone on a chair, coldly commenting on his mother’s death. Alexander lightly provides amenable worldly contrast and makes their unlikely relationship credible. His charm persists even as he unveils his appallingly abusive and violent nature. Meursault has an amor and Vera Chok as Marie possesses sexual allure, plays on his weakness for the sensual while remaining aloof from understanding his intellectual issues. Uri Roodner provides light relief as Salamano, taking his mangy dog for walks, but as this is Camus there are depths to be found even in that relationship. In the courtroom, David Carlyle passionately and lyrically expounds the case for rationality and the prosecution while Tessa Bell-Briggs calmly presides over proceeding as the pensive judge. Along with those who take up many smaller parts, members of the community and jurors the cast numbers just under thirty. There is joy to be had in seeing so many actors at work.
Many are kept busy in unobtrusively choreographed sequences moving chairs from one scene to another. These are the only items on Richard Hudson’s towering slate-grey set. It’s stark simplicity, mysteriously shrouded in a haze of smoke provides a backdrop as stern as Meursault’s sentiments. Huge ceiling fans rotate in the oppressive heat and enable David Plater to cast shadows over characters as part of his exceptional lighting plot. Blazing banks of white light generate the sun’s rays that so disturb Meursault, while spots isolate him and amber tones provide respite from the tension.
By modern standards this is a long play at two hours forty-five minutes even with an interval. I am no advocate of brevity for its own sake and there is much to be derived from immersion in plays of classical length. Act one has enough storyline, character development and variety of scenes to sustain interest. Overall, act two is arguably more energised but it contains a laboured and overstated trial scene in which the quest for rationality could be presented far more succinctly. Once the verdict is announced the denouement is also somewhat drawn out. The excessiveness of Frenchum’s ragings against the priest also tend to detract from following Meursault’s final statements and the rare insights he gives to his interpretation of life.
The many people involved in this production have created a fine work that is intellectually stimulating, emotionally challenging and visually compelling. It’s a drama made for lovers of challenging theatre.