Jean Paul Sartre, translated by Stuart Gilbert
Trafalgar Studios 2
The final play in the short Donmar Trafalgar season showcasing the work of up and coming directors is an existential classic. As such, it is best to start with the premise that meaning may be well hidden.
In fact, Jean Paul Sartre’s 1943 play, Huis Clos—or No Exit as it is commonly entitled in Britain—starts from a simple premise and follows it through.
Led in by a coolly sarcastic Valet played by Thomas Padden, three individuals undergo an experience that none can easily come to terms with.
Their location, in a Lucy Osborne design, is a decrepit, second empire living room that, with its moulded ceiling, flock wallpaper and luxurious furnishings, must once have been quite something but no can longer cover what looks like decades of decay.
The trio has come together for a purpose that only gradually emerges. First to arrive is Will Keen's Garcin, a pacifist journalist shot, one presumes, for his beliefs.
He is followed by the self-acknowledged "damned bitch', Michelle Fairley playing lesbian Ines. This is a bitter lady with a grudge against humanity that will not let up in an eternity.
The final arrival is Fiona Glascott as the considerably younger femme fatale Estelle. She, it transpires, may be aristocratic but has the morals of the gutter.
Their meeting place is a room in Hell but not the traditional fiery version, though it does heat up. In Sartre's eyes, Hell is a place where the torture comes from a combination of other people and your own inner demons.
This trio certainly has a good number of the latter, each having killed loved ones more or less directly but in every case without compassion.
As they collectively realise, this group has been thrown together because each will inevitably play on the others' weaknesses making what should be a shabby, if civilised, eternal existence into something worse than the flames and dark angels could ever manage.
To compound the pain, the damned get glimpses of life on earth going on very cheerfully in their absence.
Paul Hart uses the play to show off considerable talents with his very precise direction never letting up. It helps to have a superb cast, every one of whom gives his or her all to the cause of portraying their deeply unpleasant character and giving them immense humanity.
This shows through as first their desperation increases and subsequently when they begin to understand and accept their fate and the reasons why each so richly deserves it.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher