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The Outsider (L'Étranger)
By Albert Camus, adapted for the stage by Ben Okri
Coronet Print Room, Notting Hill Gate, London
Until October 20, 2018
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Adapting Camus' existentialist classic for the stage is no mean feat but novelist Ben Okri's eloquent and poetic version at the Coronet Print Room pulls it off.
The story of the indifferent young French-Algerian Mersault, who kills a stranger in cold blood for no apparent reason, has a strong first person narrator but Okri manages to open it out, bringing the colorful range of characters our protagonist encounters vividly to life while at the same time not losing the dense textures of the novel and the sounds and sensations of the 'hero's' world. Written in the depths of World War II it became a touchstone for many a disillusioned post war youth. What director Abbey Wright has achieved though is to leaven that nihilism by foregrounding the narrative. The key to her success is newcomer Sam Frenchum in the lead. With his dark, saturnine good looks he has the charisma of a young Alan Bates and will be one to watch. He humanizes the taciturn Mersault without trivializing the central themes.
Despite his avowals that he's "lost the habit of analysing myself" we do see him altered by the troubled souls he encounters: the pathetic old man in a dance of death with his poor dog, the street thug Raymond who draws him into his brawls, the old lady with her rituals in the restaurant or his girlfriend Marie, a simple soul who is clearly devoted to him.
Mersault describes how firing those unnecessary additional shots at the corpse of the Arab was like "knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness". Okri, a great poet himself, mines such gems in Camus' text.
David Carlyle shines in the court scenes as the eloquent Prosecutor, with his Scottish burr adding layers of menace to his repertoire of condemnation.
Richard Hudson's plain set and David Plater's lighting, while suitably minimalist, do wonders to evoke the 'otherness' of the parched Algerian setting.
The large ensemble is polished and having a cast this size in a theater of this scale is to be commended but at its core it is a triumph by Frenchum who draws us in right from those famous opening lines: "Mother died today. Or was it yesterday. I can't be certain".
The Outsider is the latest in an impressive run at this relatively new venue which has become a west London destination in its own right. The famous Coronet rep cinema which closed in 2014 goes back to its roots as a playhouse. It opened in 1898 and everyone from Ellen Terry to Sarah Bernhardt trod its boards and Edward VII was a regular visitor.
The Print Room itself, which began life in an old print works in Westbourne Grove, moved in to take it over and they've retained the faded architecture of the old theater, all crumbling plasterwork, velvet and exposed pipes. They have, however, added in the outer space what is probably the most atmospheric theater bar in London – think antique décor, Persian rugs, candlelit hallways and the bohemian air of the 1960s drinking den, all in a Moroccan style.
There is also a screening room where currently you can see a short film they've commissioned entitled The Insider. Mitra Tabrizian's 6 minute film, with a text by Ben Okri, imagines what the Arab in The Outsider might have said. It's a pleasing corrective to a text which many find problematic today.