Albert Camus, adapted by Ben Okri
Print Room at the Coronet
Ben Okri hasn’t so much as written an ‘adaptation’ of Albert Camus’s L’Étranger as a ‘homage’ to the French author.
The script of Okri’s play The Outsider, currently being staged at the Print Room at the Coronet, largely preserves verbatim much of the text of Camus’s 1942 existential novella (Matthew Ward’s ‘original’ translation is credited, but the first English translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in 1946; and, in fact, some textual cross-referencing suggests Okri’s script perhaos owes some debt to Joseph Laredo’s matter-of-fact 1982 translation).
Whatever, both the first-person narrative of the protagonist Meursault and his disconcerting exchanges with a medley of characters are reproduced, as spot-lit monologue and dialogue respectively, with a cast of 12 taking 24 roles ranging from Prisoner to Prosecutor, Chaplain to Caretaker and a 14-strong Community Company adding to the ambience of the street, beach, courtroom and jailhouse scenes.
We are in Algiers. Meursault’s mother has died—today, or perhaps yesterday, it doesn’t really matter—and he feels, if not indifference exactly, then an inability to understand or articulate his own emotions or to locate them within societal convention and expectation. His disinterested involvement in a scheme hatched by abusive and pugilistic acquaintance, Raymond, to punish the latter’s lover ends with the death, unintended but unlamented, of an Arab.
Then, the peculiarities of Meursault’s character as observed by the concierge and care staff at his mother’s nursing home are cited during his trial as evidence of his premeditative murderous intent: he did not weep at his mother’s funeral; he had not wanted to view her corpse; he preferred to smoke and drink coffee.
The first imperative is to give Sam Frenchum, who inhabits the a-temporal and a-social desert of the eponymous ‘Other’, full credit for what is a veritable tour de force. Frenchum is on stage throughout this two-hour-plus realisation of nihilistic fatalism, and his embodiment of Meursault, one of the most remarkable creations of French, perhaps all, literature—a man remarkable precisely because he is apparently so unremarkable—is sustained and consistent in its anarchic limpidity.
Frenchum’s Meursault is one for whom choice and change are irrelevant in the face of fate and the inevitability of death. If he doesn’t quite capture the dichotomous horror and truth of the absurdities to which Meursault is resigned, and which Camus makes us feel are honest, unchallengeable and thus strangely irrelevant reflections of the human condition—then that’s probably not his fault.
The first words of Camus’s novella must rival Austen’s ‘universally acknowledged’ truth, Orwell’s clocks ‘striking thirteen’ and Hartley’s ‘foreign country’ of the past, as one of the best-known literary openers: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” While, in general, Camus employs a disconcertingly staccato French syntax, here the first two sentences are flattened by matter-of-factness. Okri’s script places a ‘Pause’ between each word: “Mother (Pause.)… died (Pause.)… today.” Frenchum thus seems inappropriately arch. Surely the portentous pause should follow the second sentence?—a rupture in time before Meursault announces, “I had a telegram from the home.”
For all the metronomic monochrome of Frenchum’s delivery, such gestures—and there are, at least initially, plentiful facial twitches and eye-brow archings—destroy the Satrean nothingness: the discontinuity—not between words, but between ideas—through which Meursault creates his autonomous (a)moral tabula rasa.
And, the intonational monotony does not capture the alarming schisms between juxtaposed observations: for despite the happiness induced by wine, warmth and a slow walk under the green sky, Meursault announces, “I went straight home because I wanted to cook myself some boiled potatoes.” The latter sentence is omitted by Okri, but it is by such non-sequiturs—the anarchic indifference of the world combined with a sort of deranged rationalism—that a dangerous obliviousness is revealed. Meursault deviates from the norm and so, says society, he deserves to be punished.
Director Abbey Wright does take, or make, some opportunities for absurdity: the simple stage direction “fries an egg” becomes a theatrical extravagance in which Meursault sits by a hot-plate, cooks and devours an egg with a ridiculous combination of flair and functionality. Similarly, Camus’s detailed account of neighbour Salamano’s mutually dependent-destructive relationship with his mangy spaniel is reproduced in Meursault’s monologue but illustrated by Uri Roodner’s inappropriate, though expert, farce with a litter-picker and a mop-head.
Moreover, Camus’s text offers plentiful opportunity for contrast for dramatic intensity: the horrific symbiotic destructiveness of the relationship between Salamano and his dog, and the violent assault by pimp Raymond on his girlfriend, both of which are overlooked by Wright. The latter is reduced to clichés by Okri: “This man hit me, this man has been beating me.”
And, even if Meursault doesn’t register human attachments, Camus ensures that we do: the account, through Meursault’s eyes, of the protagonist’s mother’s funeral procession, as her old friend Thomas Pérez staggers and struggles under the cruel Spanish sun, is touching and tortured in equal measure. Such human feeling, futile, painful, self-destructive as it is, is absent from this adaptation and staging.
The consequences of the disjuncture between Frenchum’s monotonal delivery and the immediacy of Camus’s text are felt most strongly in the scene in which Meursault shoots the Arab. Here, light, heat, sun and sweat overwhelm Meursault, distorting his grasp, visual and conceptual. But, though Frenchum relates the disorientating effects of the throbbing sun, “he was just a form shimmering before my eyes in the fiery air”, and the burning intensity which makes him recall the day of his mother’s funeral, Frenchum's flat intonation captures none of the poetic power which assails the reader. Camus’s emotive words are replete with the extenuating circumstances for Meursault’s crime and which he is unable to recount in the court of public opinion. We need to feel their feverish intensity.
The post-interval trial proved simultaneously entertaining and disappointing. From the first dark moments, Richard Hudson’s single-set situate us in grim greyness of an Algerian prison—the only concessions to the African heat which plays such a telling role in Meursault’s destiny being the twisting ceiling-fans which are both reminders of the stifling claustrophobia and shadow-instruments of torture, and a golden glow during the funeral procession. But now we are transferred to a UK courtroom tele-drama in which the pomposity of the judiciary is displayed in its finery, and the regional accents of David Carlyle’s arrogant auteur of a Prosecutor and Josh Barrow’s hapless defence lawyer clash cacophonously. Something of the novel’s Algerian soul is lost here.
But these scenes are also places where the full cast and community company came together and made a mark: Vera Chok’s naïve but natural Marie; Sam Alexander’s machismo misogynist, Raymond; John Atterbury’s desperate Chaplain, who so needs Meursault’s complicity to confirm his own fate.
In the final reckoning, I didn’t feel that Okri had added to the experience of reading Camus’s novel, and that in fact some things had been lost. But, despite these professed misgivings and the occasional longueur, I was captivated.
Why? I guess because Frenchum conveys the honesty of Camus’s Meursault: he is so emotionally detached that he is unable to participate in the social contract that necessitates disingenuity, but his acceptance of stasis as a precursor of death seems to expose the Emperor’s Clothes-pursuit of human longevity.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour