Neil Bartlett Revisits Camus with 'The Plague'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday May 7, 2018

Neil Bartlett's contributions to LGBTQ letters include both plays and novels; on top of that, Bartlett is a director and performer. For his 2017 play "The Plague," adapted for the stage from the novel by Albert Camus, Bartlett relied entirely on Camus' own words even as he reshaped the material for the theater.

"The Plague" is an interesting choice; written in the years after World War II and seen as an allegory for the rise of Nazism, the book's title strikes the contemporary ear with associations of a very different and more literal kind. That might be changing even as we watch, though, with nationalism, fascism, and racism on the rise.

Praxis Stage brings Bartlett's adaptation to North America for the first time with its production, running through May 27, and playing at two venues: Dorchester Art Project through May 20 and then at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

EDGE had the chance to chat with Neil Bartlett about the play and hear his thoughts on Camus, the art of bridging the space between one medium and another, and how each generation has a "plague" of its own.

EDGE: In translating Albert Camus' novel to the stage, you have kept with Camus' own words - not paraphrasing or re-writing the text you use from the novel. It sounds as though adapting "The Plague" into a play has been a matter of judicious editing - would you say that's a fair assessment?

Neil Bartlett: Working with a source as powerful as "The Plague," the challenge is to dare to leave things out. My first decision was to follow just five of the characters through the story - and to give them equal weight. I wanted the stage to reflect the audience - for people to be watching a group of strangers going through this extraordinary experience together, and to be thinking, "Well, which of those five people am I like? In their situation, what would I have done?"

EDGE: Although you don't "update" the story for the 21st century, do you feel your adaptation shifts the focus of the original work in any significant way so as to more directly address contemporary concerns?

Neil Bartlett: The extraordinary thing about this story is that every single generation since it was first published in the aftermath of the second world war has claimed it for its own - every generation has its own "plague." I've tried to present the story as intensely, as austerely, and as humanly as I can, so that people can then find their own resonances.

In London, people experienced the story as being very much about the biggest "plague" that we currently face, the endless return of xenophobia and racism, the swamping of decency by hysteria in the media and panic in the culture. I can't wait to hear what the reaction is in Boston.

EDGE: I've read in a previous interview you did that you view your adaptation as a comment on the political situation overtaking the contemporary world and the response that many people have to it - "It's not really a disaster, things will return to normal on their own, let's wait and see." Is this adaptation a matter of wanting to answer the times with art as part of history's ongoing conversation? Or would you perhaps call it more of a cri de Coeur?

Neil Bartlett: I always write from the heart. I was pulled towards this title because of what Camus says on almost the last page of his book when he has a character say that in times of crisis, you learn that there is more to admire in your fellow human beings than to despair of. I deeply want that to be true - I need it to be true, but like everybody else, I fear that it isn't. All I want to do is to ask people to think about it. To feel it. Then maybe talk about it.

EDGE: You first undertook this adaptation at some point in mid-2015. Did the surprises that unfolded between then and the play's premiere in London last year - shockers like the Brexit vote, or the election of Donald Trump - prompt any late-breaking revisions?

Neil Bartlett: No, I never changed a word, apart from the usual edits you make in rehearsals. Brexit and the Orange One sure made me feel like I was doing the right show at the right time. But surprised? No. You know those two phenomena weren't the start of anything, and they won't be the end of it. The Plague was already in our system.

EDGE: As a significant contributor to LGBTQ theater and letters, is there, for you, a particularly strong resonance between "The Plague" and our community's history, current status, and future prospects?

Neil Bartlett: Because of my experience of living through the first wave of the UK AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and '90s, I find the story's focus on a doctor very moving, and very, very real. The doctor in the play is a doctor who doesn't even know what they are fighting, but who gives everything to the fight. I saw that, again, and again.

I also find the play's whole questioning of how people personally respond to a crisis very resonant. Do you fight, or flee? Do you protect yourself, or others? Do you have the courage to admit when you're terrified and defeated? Do you have the courage to hope? Those are questions that have been present for me and continue to be.

I think the play's understanding that the plague never goes away - that it only needs the right conditions, and it'll be alive and well amongst us again - is also very relevant to where we are as a community right now. We need to keep woke; there are so many cultural and political groupings who would love us to be scapegoated again to boost their own agendas. There are so many of us who are still treated as problems - as infections in the body politic.

EDGE: You directed the play's inaugural run at Arcola in London. Have you had any input into how Praxis Stage here in Boston will present the play? Or are you simply handing the play off to Praxis and trusting them to put their own stamp on it?

Neil Bartlett: If I give permission to a company to do one of my scripts, I expect and encourage them to do the show their own way and nobody else's. I'm excited to hear what choices they make - especially in the casting.

EDGE: Will you be in attendance to see the Praxis production?

Neil Bartlett: Sadly not - dammit, as I have always had a great time traveling to see my shows produced elsewhere. (Once in Toronto I got stuck in a snowdrift in a strapless ball gown on my way home from a community dance - on Queen Street - in 1983 - and was rescued by a policeman. But that's probably a story for another interview.....)

EDGE: What new and upcoming projects are you working on?

Neil Bartlett: I've got a big show in this month's Brighton Festival - a new one-man version of "Medea" - and a new book to finish - and a husband to keep happy.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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