The Plague At Arcola Theatre: Review

The Plague, Arcola Theatre ★★★☆☆

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The Plague At Arcola Theatre: Review The Plague, Arcola Theatre 3
The Plague at Arcola Theatre theatre review
Image: Alex Brenner

Albert Camus’s 1947 novel La Peste used the idea of an infectious deadly disease for a parable about the need to resist the spread of fascism that had led to the second world war. This adaptation by Neil Bartlett (brought back after a successful run at the Arcola last year) takes the story away from the original setting of 1940s French colonial Algeria to make it resonate for our own dangerous times.

The Plague at Arcola Theatre theatre review
Image: Alex Brenner

The Plague starts with a public inquiry in which five witnesses give testimony, responding to unheard questions, directly addressing the audience and then re-living the traumatic events they experienced. In an unnamed city, dying rats rapidly infect the citizens so that the authorities decide to close the gates to prevent further dissemination, as panic takes over.

The Plague at Arcola Theatre theatre review
Image: Alex Brenner

Bartlett (who also directs and designs) uses minimal staging (chairs, tables, microphones) to focus on the drama of those caught up in the catastrophe: a dedicated doctor separated from her terminally ill partner; a journalist who first tries to escape back to his lover outside but then joins an emergency team; a black marketeer who profits from others’ misery. It’s all very effectively done, but in a rather clinical way without drawing much emotional engagement.

The Plague at Arcola Theatre theatre review
Image: Alex Brenner

The cast perform well, alternating between reflecting on the past and being in the moment, and sometimes sharing lines as a chorus commenting on the crisis. What the mysterious pestilence represents to us now — an actual epidemic like Ebola, a metaphor for the resurgence of far-right nationalism? — is left to the audience’s own interpretation.

With the Globe Theatre currently staging Eyam — the true story of the eponymous village that sacrificially quarantined itself in the Great Plague of 1665 — it seems plague plays are contagious.

The Plague, Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, E8 3DL. Tickets £10–£26, until 29 September 2018.

Last Updated 11 September 2018