Stork theatre re-stages Colin Duckworth’s adaptation of this intricate existentialist novel once again for Melbourne audiences incorporating some interesting design elements and casting a very strong performer in Ray Chong Nee as the intriguing protagonist, Meursault.
The designer, Nathan Burmeister, serves up a clever trope at the very start of the performance. A short, sharp and disapproving buzz occurs each time Chong Nee, steps or touches a part of the set. This may be the designer’s way of illustrating one of the main ideas of Camus’ mid-twentieth century work; that is, in life there is always something that is beyond our control, something that niggles at us or has power over us. The angry sound was a metaphor for the randomness of life and its inexplicable hardship and annoyances that we are burdened by at different times of our lives.
The buzzing finally ceases and Chong Nee’s Meursault is then able to grip a the lone and colourful beach ball that adorns the set, and move more freely on the raised but small, stark white platform where he tells the story of Meursault for the next 75 minutes. The story that sees the protagonist bury his mother, have an affair with his work colleague Marie and engage in a violent altercation on the beach with his friend Raymond against two Arab men. Later that day, Meursault again comes into contact with one of the men and whether it is was delayed aggression, the numbing of his mind because of blistering heat of the sun, or something altogether inexplicable, Meursault shoots the Arab dead. These events all occur within a 48-hour time period.
The story then unfolds as we see Meursault suffer the consequences of this crime but, at the same time, come to an acute understanding of himself and the reality of human existence.
Chong Nee is very easy on the ear; his mellifluous voice is a treat and his facial expressions and body confidence are very appealing. He manages to easily hold our attention and deliver a convincing Meursault even when the direction (James Jackson) did not seem to fully convey the many ideas embedded in the original novel. The piece seems to skim the surface of Meursault’s mind and predicament and the ending seemed cut short, even though the ending of this theatrical adaptation mirrors the novel’s end. At times Meursault’s real thoughts on indifference, the futility of love, the pursuit of pleasure, the refusal to succumb to societal norms (as deemed appropriate by his lawyer and his priest) were not quite as defined as could have been.
Perhaps my memory fails me, but last time when I saw Stork Theatre’s previous adaptation of The Outsider in 2009, it was much more dense and the actor literally said and therefore conveyed a lot more. This time, and it is still interesting enough to view, it is borne out of the style of post-dramatic theatre where there is more striving to produce a reaction from the audience through set and the actor’s specific performance skills rather than remaining close and true to the text. The scene where Meursault comes on stage carrying a portable vacuum cleaner and proceeds to slowly suck up his mother’s ashes in an example of this. The audience didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified which I suppose is half the fun.
The set was neat and compact and it did serve its purpose well. The canopy over the performance area included five or so fluorescent lights in a star shaped form. These fluoros were bright, but sadly, not as blinding as the hot afternoon Algerian sun would have been which could have contributed to Meursault non-sensical crime of killing the Arab. Stork theatre’s previous production used a more naturalistic yellow, red lighting that seared the stage – I missed this attempt at naturalism this time round. Also, more naturalism was needed in the development of Meursault’s character. A more subtle unravelling of his character and what was going on in his mind, the mind of an outsider, could have been more evident for the audience, particularly for those who had not read Camus’ novel.
It is well worth the effort in seeing this twentieth century classic adapted to the stage with it stunning ideas on the nature of human existence. The creative team has brought this novel to life in a very original way.