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Theatre in Review: Albert Camus' The Fall (Soho Playhouse)

Ronald Guttman. Photo: Zack DeZon

The Fall is set in an Amsterdam dive bar that doubles as a Last Chance Saloon of the Soul. The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence -- not his real name, to be sure, not after what he has gone through -- shuffles in, pours himself a drink, and treating the audience as his confidant, describes the spiritual implosion that has brought him to this seedy place. "Did you notice how these canals form concentric circles, like the circles of hell?" he wonders. "Middle-class hell, naturally, filled with bad dreams." Well, he ought to know.

In Clamence's telling, he was once a highly respected and successful Parisian lawyer, his practice devoted to the weak and needy. "I had a specialty: worthy causes, defending the widows and the orphans as people say," he says, adding, with typical irony, "I'm not sure why by the way; widows can be abusive, and orphans pretty ferocious." Still, he adds, his reputation was spotless; he positively bashed in the approbations of others. Indeed, he had the world on a string, until it frayed to the breaking point.

The moment of inner crisis comes when, walking home at night, Clamence passes a bridge from which a woman plunges into the water. It may be an attempted suicide, but then how to explain her screams of terror? In any case, whether out of cowardice, indifference, or sheer paralysis of will, he does nothing to save her. Instead, he scurries away, avoiding the newspapers for several days lest he be reminded of refusal to act.

What he can't escape, however, is the dawning realization that he is a shell of a man, "a duplicitous creature," who lives for that approbation of others. "I used modesty to shine, I used humility to defeat, I used virtue to oppress," he admits. All his assiduous do-gooding and worldly success suddenly turn to ashes in his mouth and from there it's one long, steady slide into various forms of debased, self-destructive behavior -- especially with women -- ending up with him killing time, haranguing strangers in a louche Dutch bar named for Mexico City.

Clamence inhabits the moral twilight world of Albert Camus, author of the brief novel from which Alexis Lloyd's script is taken. Camus was part of the regiment of French intellectuals, in thrall to existentialism and absurdism, who struggled to articulate a coherent moral vision in the aftermath of world war and the death camps, with the hydrogen bomb poised over humanity like a sword of Damocles. You can argue that Clamence, in his moral paralysis, stands in for a French bourgeoisie that readily collaborated with the Nazis rather than lose its comforts. His story is, in a sense, a retelling of the passage in Genesis in which Adam and Eve, disobeying God, discover their essential nakedness. But for Clamence, there is no God, no mercy, no grace, only an endless judgment that stains all of humanity. He even indicts Jesus Christ, noting that without him there would be no slaughter of the innocents; a second later, like a spurned lover, he complains that, having died on the cross, Christ "left us alone, to keep going, whatever it takes."

These are weighty matters, and they exist far in the background in Lloyd's adaptation, which fillets Camus' much richer text into a straightforward account of one man's psychological disintegration. He removes much of the original's historical and political context, including a reference to the removal of Jews from Amsterdam and a sequence detailing Clamence's wayward wartime journey, which lands him in an internment camp in North Africa. (He also downplays the art theft that plays a role in the story's denouement.) But these omissions have a diminishing effect. Camus' thinking was rooted in highly specific soil, and it loses something in Lloyd's narrower view.

Ronald Guttman, who plays Clamence, is an eminently skilled pro with a fine vocal instrument, but he doesn't, I think, connect with the text's intricate, sometimes tortured, line of thought nor with the character's profound self-loathing; an edge of desperation is missing. Didier Flamand's staging, which locates the play in a real bar -- the basement at Soho Playhouse, decked out in Mexican d├ęcor -- must have seemed like the right idea, but the actor's frequent wandering around diffuses the narrative's underlying tension. This piece would probably benefit from stillness, tightly focused lighting, and a more intensive investigation of the text.

The Fall has its moments of dark amusement, when Clamence notes that "Women have the same weakness as Napoleon: they think they can succeed where all the others have failed," or when he asserts, "The French have two obsessions: ideas and fornication. Left and right, so to speak." But, in this presentation, Camus' intellectual fire feels banked and the evening is, sadly, a little bit dull. Clamence's inner torment should be more attention-getting than this. --David Barbour

(20 October 2022)

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