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The Plague review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘richly allegorical’

Billy Postlethwaite, Burt Caesar and Martin Turner in The Plague at the Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Alex Brenner Billy Postlethwaite, Burt Caesar and Martin Turner in The Plague at the Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague, the story of a city torn apart by infectious fever, is a bold allegory on the Nazi occupation. In Neil Bartlett’s compelling new stage adaptation, it becomes a blunt, unspecific, but irrefutably resonant metaphor for contemporary, post-Brexit Britain.

Five characters – protagonists in an unspecified city’s struggle against plague – sit behind a steel table, using microphones to answer unasked questions about their experiences. It’s an inquiry – think Leveson or Chilcot, except instead of exposing press standards or the Iraq War, it weaves an increasingly horrific tale of contagion, quarantine and mass death.

Over 85 minutes, Bartlett’s production – he directs too – metronomically unfolds, interleaving the converging narratives of a doctor (a convincingly pressured Sara Powell), a journalist (a swaggeringly self-centred Billy Postlethwaite), and others.

Jack Weir’s shifting lighting and Dinah Mullen’s sound – a chilling tapestry of sirens, screams and insistent piano – evoke intensifying hysteria well.

If at times it feels as if depth has been sacrificed for detail, the production makes up for it with an arresting topicality. Time and time again, Bartlett lands on something that reverberates deafeningly beyond the stage, and his production’s predominant image – an isolated city, wracked with fear, awash with panic, and besieged from within – provokes a foreboding that is difficult to shake.


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Neil Bartlett’s richly allegorical adaptation of Albert Camus' novel