‘L’enfer, c’est les Autres’.
Sartre’s heavily quoted – and often misunderstood – line ‘Hell is other people’ is at the core of the English version of his original ‘Huis Clos’, and, despite its misinterpretations, is a very good place to start when we consider what this play is actually about. Having died, three people find themselves in Hell and are ushered into a room together, with the door closed firmly behind them. Expecting to find various cruel forms of torture awaiting them, they find only each other, and through dialogue and debate, they begin to realise that this is their punishment, their torture, their experience of ‘Hell’. Because of their confinement, their whole lives – including past, present and future actions – will be paraded in front of others for judgement. Hell, in other words, is the introspection and accountability that follows from the presence of other people. For anyone schooled in philosophy, this reeks of Sartre’s own existentialist beliefs, yet the play is not in itself a philosophical treatise: the situation prompts philosophical discussion about the nature of man and of man’s actions, but in essence, it is simply a drama. A drama of one act, with no scene change and almost no physical action, set in a sparsely furnished backdrop, and revolving around the changing interactions of the three characters involved – Garcin, Inèz and Estelle.
Any performance of this piece, then, is difficult to pull off. It may seem simple, with no complex props, costumes, set designs or movements, and the characters may seem at first varied and developed, therefore easy to embody and maintain, and yet to be able to create a full-scale performance that grips its audience from start to finish is another matter entirely.
I was able to witness a crucial scene towards the middle of the play, in which the characters finally reveal their true personalities as they delve into their past lives to explain why they have ended up in Hell. This extract of intense character profiling, as we suddenly learn more about the three protagonists than their exterior self-portrayal, really showcased the incredibly talented cast and points to an extremely promising full performance. Nils Reimer was a fantastic Garcin, with a booming voice and dominating stage presence at first, but gradually allowing the nuances of his character to shine through during the scene as his insecurities seeped through his initially guarded exterior. Lydie Sheehan, too, was very convincing as Estelle, who is far from an easy character to play. During the scene I watched, Sheehan was able to capture both the apparent naïveté of Estelle’s outward appearance, drawing attention to her vanity and self-definition in relation to men, and the more unpleasant side of her nature, as she describes the actions that brought her to Hell in an off-hand, aloof and alarmingly detached way. However, the stand out performance for me in the scene that I saw was Jessie See’s portrayal of Inèz, who is the driving force of the play and the most complex character, embodying Existentialist ideals while maintaining her own clear personality. Although Inèz is often seen as the least relatable of the characters, showing almost no remorse about her past actions and taking pleasure in manipulating others through their self-conscious vulnerabilities, See still managed to embody the role almost effortlessly, drawing out the philosophical nature of her character’s outlook on life whilst maintaining the focus on her specific personality and actions at each point in the play. During the extract that I watched, she was at once cruel, manipulative and yet disturbingly seductive in her actions as well as the way she delivered her lines, which combined to create a captivating performance.
With such a well rehearsed cast who are able to deliver their own monologues effectively whilst also interacting with each other in intense, short bursts to great effect, it was no wonder that I was so gripped by what was being played out in front of me that it took a few seconds to shake myself out of the world of the drama and back into reality. The preview itself took place in a room in Worcester, and yet even in this light and airy setting it was easy to get sucked into the play: in the closed, darkened atmosphere of the bT studio, with the audience sitting on three of the four sides of the stage, forming a physical barrier between the characters in the room and the outside world, I have no doubt that this will be an arresting and exciting performance of an incredibly powerful play.
No Exit will be performed in the Burton Taylor Studio Theatre from the 31st May-4th June, tickets available here.