Albert Camus’s 1942 novel L’Etranger follows Meursault, whose mother dies, and who then kills an Arab man on the beach just because the sun was in his eyes. It has now been adapted for the UK stage by Nigerian poet and Man Booker prize winner Ben Okri, as The Outsider.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Okri’s writing and adaptation of the French masterpiece takes a lyrical turn that applies poetry to this tale of synesthesia, existential disturbance and murder. It’s Camus, but with a flourish. As Okri’s Meursault says before he pulls the trigger: “Cymbals of sunlight crashed against my forehead”.
Meursault is our protagonist, and we are made to feel connected to this cool, separate character, who stands outside of the milieu he lives in. Often sat on a chair, or at least under his own spotlight, he looks out at the audience as if to say he knows that he shares our gaze, and not the blindness of the other players causing commotion around him. Sam Frenchum, with his almost-monotonous ambivalence, plays Meursault as you feel Camus intended, and takes this work from good to incredible.
However, the ensemble cast – especially the pensioner chorus – are what holds this piece together logistically. As Frenchum’s Meursault slopes through life, detached from the workings of the set, they hold it together, something which in its slickness adds a touch of comedy. It’s an impressive feat that they can stand out against Meursault’s driving monologue.
During the interval, you can see a film in the theatre’s studio – The Insider – directed by Mitra Tabrizian and written by Ben Okri. Shot in Algeria, the film is a fitting reverse of Camus’s play, from the perspective of the man killed on the beach. In Arabic, with sub-titles, it’s a modern approach that balances out the elements of the play that feel rather dated, and it is worth visiting The Coronet to see the film alone.
One of the truly great things about this work is its pace. The play is long at just under three hours, but it doesn’t risk rushing things, and one of the most poignant moments is when Frenchum cooks an egg in a frying pan on stage, in silence, from beginning to eggy end. It’s simple and mudane, but somewhat true in its presentation of freedom. You can see how for Meursault “it doesn’t seem to matter”, but then it does. A worthy watch.
The Outsider is playing at The Print Room at The Coronet until 14 October. For more information and tickets, click here.