The Outsider (L’Étranger)
Print Room at the Coronet
Reviewed – 18th September 2018
“A trust in Camus runs through the piece, but Okri is also unafraid to interrogate him”
We are going to die, all of us, no matter who we are, no matter what we try. This is true. In the knowledge that our fates our sealed, and given the constant humiliation of living, the only question is why carry on at all, let alone struggle? This is the central problem of absurdism, the strain of existentialism developed by Albert Camus; the conclusion of Meursault – the disconnected protagonist of his most celebrated novel – is that there is no reason. And yet he carries on existing. Roaring with the urgency of the original, Ben Okri’s adaptation of L’Étranger for stage demands that once more we face its shattering questions.
His mother dies, but Meursault cannot recall when, let alone how old she was. He is uninterested in seeing her body, smokes and drinks coffee in the presence of her coffin, and falls asleep at her funeral. For him these facts are as irrelevant as whether or not he even loved her (though, he supposes, he probably did). There is no spite in his heart, only indifference, and incomprehension at the values of others. Though he is casually happy in the arms of his girlfriend (who, he supposes, he doesn’t really love), or watching films, or swimming in the warm seas off the Algerian coast, his inability to engage in society’s fictions condemns him. It condemns him when he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, when he shows no concern at his neighbour beating a woman, when he displays no interest in career or marriage, and ultimately when he kills a man.
To translate such an austere, interior novel to theatre requires a unique intuition into its ideas, and Okri displays nothing less. As a starting point, he samples directly from the original text, allowing Meursault’s monologues to cut right through each scene. Not only do Camus’ words serve as an anchor to the piece, but the manner in which they are used immediately isolates Meursault. The world is made to appear as trivial to us as it does to him, often to the point of hilarity. Okri generates a dream-like environment, beyond which we too would only see him as the outsider.
A trust in Camus runs through the piece, but Okri is also unafraid to interrogate him. On the subject of the murdered man, a nameless Arab (referred to exclusively as “the Arab” in the novel), Okri seems uneasy with Meursault’s -and possibly Camus’- disposal of him as a tool to reaffirm the former’s humanity. In a political climate replete with anti-Islamic sentiment (and given Algeria’s own fractious past), Okri has explicitly expressed the desire to give the murdered man agency. Rather than significantly alter the narrative, however, the man returns as a ghost at Meursault’s trial. In this way Okri extends to him Camus’ universal philosophy rather than – as Meursault later says about himself – excluding him from the proceedings. It is not a rebuttal of Camus but a dialogue, and one that serves to strengthen the piece’s resolve rather than diminish it.
Led by Sam Frenchum’s Meursault, in two hours not a single beat is missed by the cast. Every actor’s performance is a keystone in Camus and Okri’s towering theses. In such an essentially collaborative effort, singling out performances may be a hollow gesture. Nonetheless, it is the furious dialogues of David Carlyle, Tessa Bell-Briggs, and John Barrow in the second act’s courtroom scene that distils the strange logic surrounding Meursault (in spite of his guilt) into a final, terrifying conclusion. Meanwhile Frenchum manages, impressively, to capture both Meursault’s detachment and the strange empathy he evokes; the enormity and the comedy of absurdism both haunt his withdrawn expression. The pace of each scene is erratic -some quick and matter of fact, others lingering past the point of meaning – but Meursault’s calm is constant. The spacious, sparse set, often only lit by a single beam of light seems to reflect his mood and though the piece is full of action, his stillness overwhelms.
As brutal as the core notion of absurdism appears, and as nihilistic – perhaps even as immoral – as Meursault may seem to be, Camus’ final argument is one of breathtaking optimism. The very idea skewers the trivialities of modern existence, summed up by Meursault’s refusal to engage meaningfully with them. This does not mean that the trivialities have no consequences, but only from a position beyond them can a person ask the question, is life worth living? In both L’Étranger and his classic essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes that, although our fate may be determined, perhaps even because of it, we are uniquely free to build our own meaning of life. Perhaps then, for the first time, we can really live.
Okri’s adaptation is both a questioning and an answering of this argument, and by returning to it now, he reaffirms my suspicion that in such obviously absurd times, the inherent absurdity of choosing to live becomes all the more important.
Reviewed by Harry True
Photography by Tristram Kenton
The Outsider (L’Étranger)
Print Room at the Coronet until 13th October
Based on the work of Albert Camus