Writer: Albert Camus
Adaptor: Ben Okri
Director: Abbey Wright
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Hot on the heels of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of The Plague at the Arcola, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri now adapts Albert Camus’ other great work, The Outsider (L’ Étranger). Playing at the atmospheric Print Room, existentialism has never looked so good.
In surely what will be a break-out role for him, Sam Frenchum plays Meursault, a Frenchman living in colonial Algeria in the 1940s. He’s bored and unfeeling, hardly moved when his mother dies, and his lack of emotion at her funeral will be seen by others as proof that he is capable of murder. Looking like a young Rupert Graves, Frenchum, who is on stage for the entire show, speaks softly and conversationally. Dressed in a suit throughout, even when he’s meant to be swimming, and speaking in an upper middle-class British accent, Frenchum gives Meursault a sense of privilege and awkwardness. His indifference is ably conveyed by his lack of gestures with only a hand flicker here and there.
His girlfriend Maria wants to get married. He agrees but confesses that he doesn’t think he loves her. Even the murder he commits, which is at the heart of Camus’ text, is passionless. However, the set makes up for Meursault’s coldness. Richard Hudson’s stage is made to resemble the municipal marble of Algiers and evokes cool rooms on hot days. Overhead fans whirr quickly and noiselessly, or, sometimes, sluggishly through heavy air, their shadows throwing beautiful propeller-shapes on the floor. David Plater’s magnificent lighting design provides the limitlessness of the sea, and, then, in a second, the confines of a prison cell.
Okri, who won the Booker Prize in 1991 for The Famished Road, has provided a text that doubtlessly will be used again in the future. In Meursault’s soliloquies, Okri is able to display his own love of words while still retaining the sparse tone of Camus’ original. The first half with its many scenes scurries along, helped by Abbey Wright’s inventive direction. It may seem, at first, that there is a small cast, but at one point there are 20 actors on stage.
The second half, with a long courtroom scene, could do with being shorter in order to conserve the final twenty minutes where Frenchum, again, excels in delivering the basis of Camus’ philosophy. These musings on how to live may sound heavy-going, but the show is often very funny with some great comic turns by the cast, especially Uri Roodner as dog-owner Salamano, and Tessa Bell-Briggs in her many roles. Vera Chok tries hard with Maria, an underwritten character, but it would be good to see something other than eternal optimism.
Of course, there is another underwritten character in Camus’ text: the Algerian, who is always referred to as ‘The Arab’. While Okri is powerless to resolve this in his faithful adaptation, he is able to give the man a voice in the short film, The Insider, played before and in the interval of The Outsider. Directed by Mitra Tabrizian and commissioned by The Print Room, the film imagines what the ‘The Arab’ may have said. And importantly, here, Okri gives him a name.
With such intellectual commitment by The Print Room, The Outsider is more of an event than a show. It’s been a successful year for them with adaptions of Beckett and Ibsen. And before the year is up, we still have Love-Lies-Bleeding, by American heavyweight Don DeLillo. I, for one, can’t wait.
Runs until 20 October 2018 | Image: Tristram Kenton