I arrived at La Mama’s Courthouse Theatre around half an hour early to see The Outsider. Ten minutes before the show was set to start, the foyer was full, and, seeing as it was raining outside, we were admitted to the theatre early. The stage was set and lit, and Ray Chong Nee was sitting at the end of it, in character already. We watched him sitting, brooding, wordlessly for almost twenty minutes, at the back of a harshly lit stage. He seemed to be squinting from the light. This prelude was the calm before the storm. The Outsider is a very well known, oft discussed novella by Albert Camus. His undisputed magnum opus, and perhaps the most important existential work of the 20th Century. Camus’s book has been adapted for the stage by Colin Duckworth, in an entirely new translation, and directed by James Jackson.
The play follows the same plot: a man, Meursault, is at the beach with some friends, when he finds himself incomprehensibly oppressed by the harsh light of the sun. This leads him to lose control of his emotions and kill an enemy of his friend unprovoked. Ostensibly, that’s what it’s about. What it concerns itself far more with is the philosophical precursors and aftermath of the one pivotal event. The opening scene shows Meursault, alone, struggling to figure out the seemingly arbitrary laws that govern what he can and cannot do – if he makes a misstep, an obnoxious unseen alarm sounds. This scene is removed from the rest of the play and is a superb microrepresentation of its themes. The sound design is very good, and makes the most of its jarring nature juxtaposed against a one man show.
Camus characterises Meursault as being apathetic, and slightly bothered or perturbed by minor factors in his life, but rarely genuinely passionate. As he swelters in the procession of his mother’s funeral, he notes how hot it is, but he never seems to have much urgency in these complaints – they are an inconvenience. Chong Nee’s portrayal in this adaptation, however, is a departure from the aloof attitude of Camus’s version. He tells us that he is ‘not a man of many words,’ and to the other characters in the play I’m sure this is true. But we are treated to an internal monologue that reveals what’s going on under the surface. He breaks down multiple times over the course of the play, shouts passionately and laughs loudly, all sharply contrasting what Meursault is commonly seen to be as a character.
It is a one man show, and that’s why the change is necessary. If a whole cast of characters surrounded Meursault, a dispassionate attitude would be acceptable. But one apathetic man can not captivate an audience for an hour. Chong Nee is entertaining and brilliantly charismatic at parts, and chillingly disturbed at others. He’s a great actor. With all this said, it’s not as compelling a character.
The reason The Outsider is such an influential book is because of its attitude towards society. Disconnected and dispassionate, Meursault refuses to let himself be governed by the arbitrary conventions of society, a choice he ends up dying for. This representation of the character, however, finds him skirting all over the moral compass, and his characterisation is sloppy. Sometimes he does seem genuinely reminiscent of the excellent Meursault of Camus, and sometimes he is pushed over the edge by menial things. The final scene of the play is its best, and it’s the one which finds the adaptation connecting most strongly with its source material. All the mainly ignored philosophical questions of the first three quarters of the book are given thought, discussion, and closure, and Chong Nee’s performance is nothing short of stellar.