The idea of being trapped in a room with two strangers and no toothbrushes is not especially appealing. But if this condition is eternal, then it becomes sheer torture.
This is the setting of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s most famous play, No Exit (Huis Clos), first performed in May 1944. The play features three characters, Garcin (Nils Reimer), Inèz (Jessie See), and Estelle (Lydie Sheehan): after their deaths, they are escorted by a mysterious Valet (Lianna Holston) to the same room in Hell and locked inside. While they had expected all sorts of instruments of torture, they are taken aback when they find themselves in a drawing room in Second Empire style. This style recalls a sense of order, of tastefulness, of bourgeois decorum that contrasts with the characters’ sinful crimes. At first, none of them wants to confess the reason for their punishment, nor do they understand why there seems to be a lack of tortures. Slowly, however, they realise that they are each other’s torturers. The play’s most famous line, “Hell is other people” (“L’Enfer, c’est les autres”), captures Sartre’s existentialism: it encapsulates the idea that we constantly feel scrutinized by others, and that the perception other people have of us is crucial in shaping the way we think about ourselves.
No Exit is centred around the character interaction, with no elaborate props or setting. The actors’ ability to convey the depths of their characters, and also the tense and manipulative relationship between them, is therefore crucial. The production currently running at the Burton Taylor studio conveyed all this in a very convincing way. The small and claustrophobic space of the theatre certainly helped in achieving this, particularly as Tthe show was performed in the round. Aside from the choral parts, the dynamics between the three actors nearly always result in moments where one or two of them acted as spectator(s) for the other(s), emphasising the idea of being constantly judged and watched by other people. At times the burden of the characters’ condition is passed on to the audience: if it is surely not easy to deliver the drama, it is also not easy to watch it. Just as Garcin finds the chattering of the two women almost unbearable, so the script’s relentless dialogues are a challenge for the audience.
Of all the performances, Jessie See as Inèz certainly stood out: she conveyed the complexity of her character in a deeply mesmerizing way, giving the sense that she really understood the intricacy of her character. Consciously manipulative and cruel on the one hand, she is also incapable of escaping her subconscious need to exert her dominion over people. Lydie Sheehan convincingly portrayed the double nature of Estella: seemingly shallow and childish, she has a darker side that Sheehan conveyed well, though perhaps not as smoothly and effortlessly as one would have hoped. Nils Reimer as Garcin most excelled in parts where he was the only one speaking. Although he did not fully convey the more brutal and testosterone-driven side of Garcin, he was more compelling in his depiction of the tragic side of his character.
Robert Goode’s lighting design suffused the entire drama with a cold red light, evoking an image of hell effectively if not especially originally. Particularly compelling was the moment when Garcin and Inèz insistently question Estelle on the reason why she is in hell: they draw her against the wall, where the lighting holds her in the spotlight in a cold blue ray. A classic and abused representation of crime, perhaps, but still dramatically convincing and well-handled.
This production delivers a complex and dark play in a convincing and enticing way, relying not only on the actor’s ability, but also on the type of theatrical space it which it takes place. This is by no means an easy way round the difficulty of the play, but a clever way of enhancing the cast’s potential.
‘No Exit’ is now sold out; it runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 4th June. More details are available from their Facebook page.