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“He had run out of things to say to her.” Ben Okri has adapted Albert Camus’s classic novel “The Outsider” (“L’Etranger) not only for the stage but also for the English language. Directed by Abbey Wright, Meursault’s solitary monologue is transformed into an ensemble act as Okri takes Marie, Raymond or Salamano out of the shade of Meursault’s narrative and brings them to life. Raymond (Sam Alexander) feels no need to exercise any form of self-control and indulges his vulgar, violent self down to the wife beater he wears throughout the play. Alex Blake is a self-content Masson who doesn’t mind repeating himself, even in court. Marie (Vera Chok) tries hard, very hard, to be happy, to love and hardest of all to be loved by Meursault, the outsider at the heart of this play. Sam Frenchum is a cool and handsome Meursault, reminiscent of Alain Delon in his heyday. He is seductive like a movie star, perfect yet bland enough to allow the other characters, even us in the audience, to project emotions, fantasies, assumptions onto him. Richard Hudson’s set is bleak and plain, a generic concrete space in a hot colonial city.
To see this 1940s’ story about a white European who shoots five times a nameless Arab in the French colony of Algeria through the eyes of a Nigerian man born one year before his country gained independence from British colonial rule makes for a timely, poignant and enlightening experience. Okri at first wanted to make the Arab speak. The estate of Albert Camus said no and he came to agree with their decision. It is precisely by showing the reality of how the local French population thought and behaved that we get a full measure of the absurdity inherent in a colonial racist society. Okri does this subtly: Raymond speaks shamelessly of his desire to dominate and punish his girlfriend and we wonder at his naivete in being so open about his depravity until Meursault casually discovers that she is ‘Moorish’. How Meursault’s prosecution really gets traction with the colonial jury when the accusation shifts from murder of an Arab to Meursault’s perfectly legal action of putting his elderly mother in a nursing home and his apparent indifference at her funeral. Everyone in this play is desperately hanging on to a pretense of humanity which is why so many characters – Uri Roodner’s colorful Salamano comes to mind – look and behave like caricatures of themselves. The colonialists are fighting the suspicion that the society they have created turns not just the Arabs into sub-humans but themselves as well.
The only way back to feeling human is through equality. Meursault is condemned to death. It’s the end of his privilege and the beginning of his consciousness. The last scene is beautiful. Emotion finally shakes Frenchum’s hair, his face, his body. He comes to life on the eve of his death and that is a happy ending.