The Just by Albert Camus
Soulpepper Theatre Company
Young Centre for the Performing Arts
In our so-called 'modern' world, the U.S., a military superpower, routinely employs remote-controlled drones to locate bomb targets in far-off, alien territory. They commit long-distance 'kills' seemingly as simple as sending an email message that speedily delivers a mortal blow while calculating an acceptable percentage of collateral damage. The latter is devised by objective, clear-thinking actuaries located somewhere in an anonymous office building geared to commerce and bottom-line thinking. It is conveniently hidden and coldly aloof from gratuitous messy thoughts and horrific images of blood-soaked gore and dismemberment - skulls and limbs detached from torsos, skin and bone slopped on to stone like a crazed Jackson Pollock - amidst invisible tears and inaudible screams from those who remain, powerless and befuddled by the shock and awe of unbridled weaponry. Somnambulistic viewers at their sets back home, glued to CNN, witness only a black and white bracket, a target that suddenly goes poof and disappears in cloudy dust, another successful 'smart' bomb that efficiently serves democratic goals and makes one feel temporarily secure.
Frank Cox-O'Connell, Director of Soulpepper's production of Camus' The Just, explains that in Albert Camus' journals from the late forties there's a one-line scrap that reads: 'A play, Dora the bomb-maker: if you love nothing, this can't end well.' He eventually turned this note into the text we hear tonight. By the time the script made it to a Paris stage in 1949, Dora's line had been changed to "nothing is simple."
Indeed, despite Wolf Blitzer's naive analysis from 'The Situation Room' where we are made to feel like covert acolytes, nothing is ever simple and Camus, "writing from a Paris that was newly free from Nazi occupation, but not free from its ghosts as a colonizing oppressor: (he) was looking ahead as much to the problems of France-occupied Algeria as he was responding to the occupation France had just endured."
French Algeria lasted from 1830-1962, a destination for hundreds of thousands of European immigrants known as colons and later as pieds-noirs. However, indigenous Muslims remained a majority. War between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) from 1954-1962 led to Algerian independence. Conflict was characterized by guerrilla warfare and torture employed by both sides. There were assassination attempts on Charles de Gaulle and attempts at military coups. A large number of bombings and murders in both Algeria and France tried to prevent planned independence.
Grippingly, there were 210 French nuclear tests from 1960-1995, seventeen in the Algerian Sahara between 1960-1966 with another 193 carried out in French Polynesia. In 1985, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was bombed and sunk by the French DGSE in Auckland, New Zealand as it prepared another protest of nuclear testing in French military zones. Two members of DGSE, the French equivalent to the UK MI6 and the US CIA. were captured and sentenced, but repatriated to France.
As Justin Timberlake reminds us, "What Goes Around...Comes Around," and on November 14, 2015 in Paris when thousands of French residents and tourists were happily partying and fans enjoying a soccer match between France and world champion Germany, ISIS terrorists armed with bombs and AK-47s, murdered 128 people.
Cox-O'Connell reminds us that "there are corrupting forces in the world. These forces can strip us of our humanity. But the act of resisting the corruption - in any effective way - can in turn strip the resistor of her humanity. This is the paradox that Camus gives us: how do we reconcile moral common sense with the extremism that real change requires?"
A timely drama given the current mania of suicide bombings and a broken American electoral system, drifting towards, if not already thoroughly controlled, by a dictatorship of the 1% that attempts to purchase members of both parties to serve its narrow ends.
Cox-O'Connell explains that to address the conundrum, Camus looked back in order to look forward. "The historical moment he chose was 1905 Moscow; a tipping point in society, two weeks after the Bloody Sunday Massacre (thousands of peaceful protesters gathered to call for better working conditions and were fired upon). He looked to the terrorist seed of the Russian Revolution as five citizens leave behind their relative privilege to make the world a better place."
The play is superbly concocted and staged, and not unlike CNN, the audience sits appropriately on opposite sides, Roman spectators in a contemporary yet minimalist rendition of the Forum, the harsh lighting at each act's beginning, deliberately glaring and uncomfortable, Ken MacKenzie's stage appearing quite forlorn except for stark, opposing motifs at each end, a wolf head, its teeth viciously bared versus a meek deer head, symbolizing the polarities of hate and love.
A small group of revolutionaries prepare precise plans to assassinate the Grand Duke. They also represent the extremes of hate and love. Stepan (Brendan Wall) escaped from prison, where he was tortured, and later, he reveals his bare back brimming with scar tissue from the whip, the implication that he had not picked enough cotton. His voice masterfully dull and mechanical, he is fueled by hate and does not trust Yanek (Gregory Prest), a romantic revolutionary like Bernie Sanders, Trump's token communist and a poet, motivated by love. Raquel Duffy plays Dora the bomb maker, whose love for Yanek turns to bitter hate when he is executed. Diego Matamoros, the group leader, is suitably calm and measured, trying to keep the opposing forces of Stepan and Yanek on track.
Debashis Sinha's sound is eerily effective when Yanek is imprisoned, four sets of metallic chains suddenly clanging to the floor from above to represent a prison cell.
The key complication for Yanek (and the audience) occurs on his first attempt to kill the Grand Duke as the would-be assassin, camouflaged in a tuxedo, cannot bear to throw the bomb at the passing carriage because the Grand Duke's two children sit inside. This becomes the beating heart of the matter. Nihilistic Stepan does not care. He is on the side of 'collateral damage', the euphemistic phrase uttered by unapologetic deputies - like 'friendly fire' that extracts any emotion from the deed. But Yanek is too grounded in love for those mean streets. We are asked to determine who is correct, and we know that Wolf and CNN will not help. Suddenly, the issue of terrorism becomes complex, and even the side issues of encryption, NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden, and water-boarding - much more thorny.
From Soulpepper resident artist Paula Wing's Background Notes, we read, "Those who claim to know everything and to settle everything end up killing everything. The day comes when they have no other rule but murder..."
"Albert Camus grew up in Algeria, a pied noir or French colonial. After his father died in World War I, his illiterate mother toiled as a maid for wealthy French families. His upbringing - one of the colonizers but shunned by them because of his poverty - did much to shape his outsider perspective. A revolutionary who opposed all systematic philosophies, he moved to France, where his sensibility met the times perfectly. His prolific output includes novels (The Stranger), plays, books of philosophy (The Myth of Sisyphus) and essays. In 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, for the purity, concentration and rationality of his writing. Responsibility, care, and humanity are his hallmarks."
"He joined the Resistance movement during the Nazi occupation and became a memorable newspaper columnist after the war, befriending intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre. Les Justes premiered in 1949. Its powerful exploration of the use and limits of political violence stirred up painful memories of the Resistance for its Parisian audiences. The play - inspired by the assassination of the Russian Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in 1905 - is strikingly topical today, with groups like ISIS and Boko Haram attempting on a near daily basis to make political points by bombing civilians. Camus takes us behind the scenes of a single terrorist attack, so we meet the people behind the balaclavas. We are privy to - and implicated in - every decision, justification and action before and during the attack, as well as its consequences."
"The bombers are individual human beings: one wants to create a more just society, another, brutalized by life, dreams of brutalizing it in return. Each of them seeks meaning in their own way. Camus takes no position: he simply asks us to wrestle with a single burning question: are these people revolutionaries or are they murderers? Savour this rare opportunity to engage with a stirring writer at the height of his powers."
Indeed, this play is well worth watching, particularly for a better appreciation of life's principal two antagonistic forces - love and hate and Camus' dire warning, "if you love nothing, this can't end well."
The Young Centre for the Performing Arts sits in Toronto's Distillery Historic District, and Soulpepper, its tenant, is Toronto's largest theatre company.
Founded and guided by artists, under the leadership of
Albert Schultz and Executive Director Leslie Lester, Soulpepper boasts an integrated mission which includes: industry-leading youth outreach initiatives; the Soulpepper Academy, Canada's only multi-year paid professional training program for theatre artists of all disciplines; and a year-round diverse repertory season which is rounded in the classics and committed to the creation of new works, new forms, and innovative practices.