(Philip Olermann’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/25.)
Austrian director Philipp Preuss’s new stage adaptation of Albert Camus’ 1942 classic L’Étranger (The Stranger) takes place entirely inside a three-walled cage made of upright LED tubes: a static stage set that proves surprisingly adaptable. When the inscrutable protagonist Meursault attends his mother’s funeral, the light flickers, like a sunset filtered through trees. After his imprisonment for the murder of an Arab man in French Algiers, the white shards form the bars of his cell.
In the novel’s pivotal murder scene, as Meursault walks down the beach toward the scene of his crime, with “the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull”, the stage manager whacks up the lights until the audience have to shield their eyes – not a bad metaphor for a text that, in spite of its widely agreed upon brilliance, many these days find hard to approach head on.
France’s relationship with Camus’s first novel remains complicated. Edward Saidsaid the book was “informed by an incapacitated colonial sensibility”. Recently theatre-makers have found it easier to access the material in a roundabout way, via Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, a feted production of which is currently at Munich’s Kammerspiele theatre.
Preuss’s production, at Berlin’s Schaubühne, has more hope in the enduring relevance of Camus’s absurdist tale. “Existentialism has become a visual cliche – chain-smoking gloomsters wearing black polo necks,” the director says. “But there’s something very contemporary about Camus’s rejection of ideology. Ironically in France, because of the political associations The Stranger attracted after the 1961 Paris massacre [the bloody crackdown by French police on an Algerian anti-war protest], the text that first tried to articulate a post-ideological age was one that struggled to do so.”