Albert Camus’ seminal 1942 existentialist novel The Outsider (L’Etranger) has been given the first major UK stage adaptation by Man Booker Prize-winning Ben Okri.
It’s the story of Meursault, a French-Algerian shipping clerk who is tried for killing an Arab man on a beach near Algiers. But its anti-hero is really condemned for who he is rather than what he has done. Meursault doesn’t follow conventional social behaviour: he shows no grief at his mother’s funeral, has a girlfriend but doesn’t recognise love, seems to follow no moral code and doesn’t subscribe to religion.
Rather than turn Camus’ first-person narrative into an extended monologue, Okri has created a piece for multiple characters (here played by a 13-strong cast). It raises questions about the relationship between an individual and society, exposing the hypocrisy and corruption of the Establishment while probing the identity and freedom of someone who doesn’t believe in anything.
Abbey Wright’s spare production begins and ends with Meursault alone shrouded in darkness, but alleviates the metaphysical murkiness with humour, including a satirical trial scene that turns into a charade of justice.
The urban squalor, oppressive heat and blinding sun of the North African setting is evoked in Richard Hudson’s design of dilapidated stone wall and floor, plus twirling ceiling fans, and David Plater’s glowing lighting and Matt Regan’s street sounds.
Sam Frenchum – on stage throughout, often spot-lit as he addresses the audience directly – plays Meursault with detached honesty, speaking in a flattened near-monotone that just avoids becoming monotonous, though it is difficult to engage with a character who is so self-contained.
Vera Chok is his high-spirited girlfriend who fails to get him to make more of an emotional commitment, and Sam Alexander bristles with macho aggression as a misogynistic pimp with whom Meursault becomes fatally involved.