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With the rise of right wing political parties and nationalistic fervor in Europe, the fear of creeping fascistic tendencies across the globe, and the election of a U.S. president with authoritarian inclinations, there couldn't be a better time to stage Albert Camus' rarely-performed 1948 play "The State of Siege" ("L'État de Siège").
The drama, which ArtsEmerson is presenting at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre this Thursday through Saturday (Nov. 9-11), stands as a harrowing political allegory that warns against the dangers of authoritarianism and tyranny, but also argues for the power of resistance and the human capacity for love to counteract oppressive regimes.
Seen last weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, presented by the Next Wave Festival, this staging by Paris' renowned Théâtre de la Ville features powerful, inventive images, a visceral production design and a deep thematic resonance, fashioned by avant-garde director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. But the play can't overcome the limitations of Camus' thinly-rendered characters and rickety, bare-bones dramaturgy. While it's a compelling and timely rumination on the rise of authoritarianism, and the production is suffused with a potent, terrifying air of paranoia and menace, "The State of Siege" is ultimately more of a poetic and symbolic philosophical argument than a fully realized work of drama.
Dystopian allegories are all the rage right now — from Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's adaptation of George Orwell's "1984," which was produced on Broadway last spring (after a 2016 run at the American Repertory Theater), to Hulu's riveting small screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." So it's not a surprise to see Camus' own nightmarish parable, performed in French with English supertitles, brought to life on stage. This also stands as the first Boston appearance by Paris' Théâtre de la Ville, whose acclaimed productions of Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" and Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" earned raves in previous stateside tours.
Written in 1948 in the wake of the horrors of World War II and the totalitarian terror of Spain's Franco-led fascist state, "The State of Siege" takes place in the supposedly fortified Spanish city of Cádiz. The story begins innocuously enough, with several actors coming down the aisles of the theater, engaging with the audience. Then the bright lights of a comet streak across the sky, accompanied by blaring sounds, seen by some as a harbinger of horrors to come.
While their city remains stable, the citizens are now on edge. A strapping young man, Diego (Matthieu Dessertine), woos a young woman named Victoria (Hannah Levin Seiderman), and actors are performing a play. The Governor (Pascal Vuillemot), with his coiffure of politician hair, announces that he is happy about the lack of civil strife and wishes for the peace to last. But this is a stagnant, ideals-starved society incapable of collective decision-making. When one of its citizens suddenly collapses, a public health scare ensues.
Soon, a black overcoat-wearing figure calling himself The Plague (Serge Maggiani) stalks the stage with his menacing Secretary (Valérie Dashwood). After a brief negotiation, the compliant Governor agrees to resign, clearing the way for their coup and an authoritarian reign of terror. Lists of sick people are compiled and reported to the authorities. The infirm are emblazoned with a black star. The Plague and his regime rule through manipulation, demagoguery and fear-mongering. A curfew is imposed, and civil liberties are curtailed. Kafka-esque rules and regulations, including "certificates of existence" (which are "temporary and of short duration"), are instituted. Resistors are jailed or deported. Nada (Philippe Demarle), once a loafish nihilist, is bestowed with administrative power and harasses his fellow citizens. Victoria's father, the Judge (Alain Libolt), does the bidding of the regime despite the harsh effects on his fellow citizens.
After Diego overcomes his fear and engages in a single act of defiance, the people start to see how they can rise up and "jam the machine" of authoritarianism. The rebellion grows, the public is jolted into action, and the tide finally seems to be turning.
There was much anticipation for "The State of Siege" when it premiered in 1948 on the heels of the 1947 publication of Camus' landmark novel "The Plague." Instead, "Siege" was flayed by many French critics, but Camus himself argued that "for all its faults [the play] may be the work I have written that resembles me most."
Unlike the recent Shakespeare in the Park production of "Julius Caesar," staged in Central Park by the Public Theater last summer, this "The State of Siege" doesn't draw any explicit parallels to our current president. There's no Trump-like figure in a red tie and a swoop of orange hair, no European-accented model wife, black-clad antifa resisters or pussy hat-wearing protesters. Instead, Demarcy-Mota slowly but ever-so-surely ratchets up the tension, employing swelling music, video projections and striking visual tableaus — including a giant tarp that gets pulled off stage, sweeping away bodies — to underscore the drama.
Spasms of violence erupt out of nowhere, including a man smashing a guitar and bodies thrown from a balcony that disappear into grave-like holes in the stage floor. Sounds of helicopters and glaring spotlights add to the mounting sense of dread. Allusions abound to current debates about voter ID laws, immigration crackdowns, government surveillance and the curbing of civil liberties.
Because the actors are all playing archetypes, they're limited in the depth and variety they can achieve with their characterizations. Maggiani is menacingly ferocious as the Plague, a symbol of both authoritarian and environmental catastrophe, and Dashwood as his Secretary offers up a chilling, bureaucratic temptress in leather, who executes people by ripping a page out of her ledger. Vuillemot plays the Governor as an empty suit of a politician who compliantly gives in to political expediency over moral fortitude. But the real standouts are the riveting Seiderman and the energetic live-wire Dessertine as Romeo-and-Juliet-like young lovers Victoria and Diego, not least because they are given more of a true story arc to work with.
While fellow absurdists Samuel Beckett and Ionesco became theatrical giants, Camus' own plays have held significantly less cultural impact (though "Caligula," first performed in 1945, continues to endure). It's no wonder why.
As the 95-minute "The State of Siege" drags on, the cardboard nature of its characters and tediousness of its story becomes ever-more apparent. It's an abstract philosophical rumination and moral argument disguised as drama. Yet "Siege" still works as a powerful allegory urging a courageous political awakening to fight against the oppressive forces of tyranny. It argues for the humanistic power of the individual to do good, affect social change and move the collective conscience, while maintaining that love can counteract abuses of power and galvanize the populace.
Revolutions need good slogans, and Camus' anti-nihilist, anti-authoritarian cri de cœur in "The State of Siege" could be distilled down to "love trumps hate" — as timely and resonant as any other call to action in these increasingly dark and surreal times.
“The State of Siege” runs Nov. 9-11 at Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre.
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