Set in Algiers, where the sun burns bright from a clear blue sky and the sea offers a refreshing relief from the heat, The Outsider is the story of a young man, Meursault. He is an ordinary man with an ordinary job who, for no clear reason, murders a man. Imprisoned and tried he is condemned to death by society more for his failure to cry at his mother's funeral, and to show remorse for his crime, than for the act itself. Published in 1942, The Outsider is one of those books that affects the reader deeply and tends to stay with you. I can't remember when I first read it but at the time it blew my mind. I had to see how Stork Theatre would translate this classic work of literature and philosophy to the stage.
Things felt right from the moment I walked into the theatre. A raised, stark-white square, reminiscent of a boxing ring, stood centre stage, empty except for a large colourful beachball. The 'stage' was lighted from above by a downlight of the same dimensions, reminiscent of the lights over billiard tables. The back wall was a blank white screen. The narrator Meursault (Ray Chong Nee), dressed in black pants and a white tee-shirt, sat silently on a chair behind the 'ring' staring straight at the audience. Sometimes he'd smile, sometimes just look passively ahead. It was more than a little disconcerting and there were moments when the audience laughed uncertainly. I was immediately reminded of the burning sun, the heat, the beach, the isolation of Meursault from society, so vividly created in the book
Everything is suitably minimal in this production. Lighting, sound, and props are used effectively to compliment mood and effect scene changes. The sound effects in particular, sparse though they are, often work to heighten tension. Sometimes they are subtly faint, as is the heartbeat that accompanies Mersault's progress along the beach towards the fatal moment when his whole life will change. Chong Nee moves like a boxer as the tension increases. At other times they are loud and harsh as are the applause and boos that accompany the different stages of the trial.
Colin Duckworth is the translator and adaptor and has kept faithfully to the original text. As the book opens so Meursault's first words are 'Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.'
Chong Nee is Meursault; he also speaks for other characters. His delivery of the prosecutor's final address is powerful, confronting and harrowing. He succeeds in holding the attention of his audience from the first moments; his performance mesmerising, his physicality as constrained as the text yet, like the text, saying so much. At times his eyes dart from side to side, provoking laughter but also revealing uncertainty. Sometimes a smile will spread across his face, only to disappear in a moment when he becomes uncertain, bemused, or fearful. We identify with his sense of being watched, judged, prodded in certain directions by the expectations of others, and can't help but admire his determination to be his own person, to speak only what he truly believes.
This interpretation of The Outsider creates for its audience a tense, passionate, sometimes humourous and thought-provoking night of theatre. If the response of my friend is anything to go by, it also encourages those who have yet to read Camus to add his books to their 'must read' list.
Stork Theatre presents
by Albert Camus | translated and adapted by Colin Duckworth
Directed by James Jackson
Venue: La Mama Courthouse | 349 Drummond St, Carlton
Dates: 23 Feb – 13 March 2016