REVIEW: BBC Radio 4- Neil Bartlett’s take on The Plague

Brian Butler July 30, 2020

Worthing-based queer writer Neil Bartlett has produced a masterful hour of lockdown radio that will resonate all too clearly with every listener.

His version of the 1947 novel La Peste, by Albert Camus seems all too real to us, and suitably it was recorded with the actors in isolation. Bartlett takes the liberty of changing the sex of the central narrator – the heroic Dr Rieux and by making her a woman with a wife many miles away, he immediately makes the story somehow more personal and certainly more inclusive.

Sara Powell is absolutely electrifying as the doctor who spots almost at once that the incidence of sick and dying rats in the unnamed town is something the authorities should not ignore.

But of course ignore it they do with dire consequences. The structure of the play has the feel of a courtroom or committee of inquiry with the good doctor being virtually the only person who has chronicled the rampaging epidemic as it happened day by day.

Though Bartlett told me recently it’s too obvious a connection to read across to our current Covid predicament, you just can’t help doing so and lines of dialogue hit you starkly over the airwaves. Amid the chaos and fear there are moments of humanity – as one character says “ sometimes people just have to look after each other, don’t they ? “

To the indifference of the powers that be Dr Rieux tells us: “ no-one thought they had to do anything…it won’t happen to us, and if it’s does it won’t last” they say.

She underlines the point : “ People think they’re free , but no-one’s free where there’s plague”. When she suggests quarantining the entire town, she’s greeted initially with hollow amusement ;” a few deaths and people talk as if it’s the end of the world”  A few of these lines are repeated as if to refute their validity.

In time, heroes emerge – some unlikely – the humble town hall official, the initially sceptic journalist and ofcourse the doctor herself. Countering it there’s black market trading and even people trafficking to escape the quarantine.

After months, the plague abates, but as the Dr tells us in the final  moments of her narrative: “ Plague never actually dies” – it’s a sobering conclusion.

The Plague, written and directed by Neil Bartlett can be heard online at BBC Sounds.