“There are a lot of good things going on, but it feels a little too focussed on getting several points across”
Relish Theatre’s new play by James McDermott is set in Cromer in Norfolk, a town that is going through an influx of chain stores and cafes and, maybe, losing its soul. May, played by Wendy Nottingham, in in her fifties and runs a good old fashioned caff at the end of the pier, which may become a Pret a Manger if she sells it. Should she stay or sell up? Ken delivers bread around the town, as he has every day for forty years. What will happen to him if the traditional places close down? Nemo is about to leave and follow his dream, becoming a drama student in London. Daz is staying put, can’t see what’s wrong with Cromer, can’t see what’s right about going to college. Nobody acknowledges their feelings, but Nemo is gay and thinks he is in love with Daz, his best mate. Daz is straight, or is he?
Time and Tide got off to a rather slow start as May and Nemo prepared the cafe for opening. Their relationship was nicely established, with May’s love of old films and Nemo’s doubts creating a believable friendship between this unlikely pair. The first odd directorial decision was when the lights dimmed, and the tables were cleaned for a second time. It’s little things like this that can throw an audience off from the world of the play. ‘But Nemo just cleaned the tables with the squirty bottle and kitchen towel, and arranged the salt and pepper. Why are they doing it again?’ Sadly it wasn’t the only time more aware direction would have been advisable. Ken came in with his bread and gave an enjoyable comic focus to the scene, adding an obvious attraction to May into the mix, Paul Easom managed not to turn Ken into a stock comic character, giving him a vulnerability underneath the comedy that was likeable and sweet. It was all rather charming, but the underlying litany of chain stores taking over the high street felt a bit artificial; more a point to be made than an integral part of the story. it is an important theme in the tale, but the lack of subtlety was wearing.
The central relationship is that of Nemo and Daz, played by Josh Barrow and Elliot Liburd. Barrow’s Nemo was delightful in his insecurity, likeable, wavering and sad. Liburd was the polar opposite, bringing a much needed energy; a loud, sweary cheeky lad down the pub. The two friends had a lot going on beneath the surface, and it had to come out. I don’t want to give away what happens, but at one point Nemo ended up on the floor, at the feet of the audience, and stayed there for quite a while. This made him invisible to at least half the room at a key point in the play. It’s a mistake often made in small theatres, and I wish directors would sit in the back row during rehearsals, with people in front of them and think about positioning.
James McDermott has written a sort of love story to old English seaside towns, as well as a story of different kinds of love between people. There are a lot of good things going on, but it feels a little too focussed on getting several points across. Director Rob Ellis almost succeeded in making it work, but someone needs to tell him that when something is thrown through a window from inside the broken glass is going to be mostly outside, not all over the floor.
“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.