Men Without Shadows (Morts sans Sépultures)

Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Kitty Black
Finborough Theatre

Production photo

Sartre's play, first produced just after the Second World War and set in 1944, soon after D Day, presents a group of French resistance fighters who, after a failed attempt to secure a village which has resulted in a massacre among the inhabitants, have been captured and are now held for questioning by the collaborationist Milice, the right wing para-military force established to oppose the resistants.

Designer Mamoru Iriguchi's set creates the abandoned house by roughly boarding up the theatre's windows, and using scaffold poles to apparently support its battered ceiling. Adding an angled wall, matched the moulding of the actual room may create an architectural oddity but solves some technical problems of the space. Four men and one woman are locked in here when the audience arrives, sitting and lying on the floor, all handcuffed, all silent, until the youngest, still little more than a boy, begs someone to break the silence.

There is little to differentiate them in dress, speech or manner and the dialogue gives almost no indication of their life outside this room beyond the fact that they have been involved in a failed attempt to take a village which has resulted only in killing its population, burning its town hall and their own capture. Their expectations are that they will be questioned, tortured for information and then killed and they seem to accept this as their destiny: their role is to suffer and stay silent.

The situation is certainly a tense one and making the audience strain to hear certainly helps to increase the tension but director Mitchell Moreno has allowed his cast to go too far in being inaudible, to the extent that at times they risk losing our attention to working out why a table is upturned or why industrial bulkhead lamps for the lighting.

Gradually we do get some bits of information: that their operation failed, that the boy is the woman's brother, that one of them has already been imprisoned and tortured in Greece. Why was this man in Greece? Was there some link between Greek and French partisans? Sartre isn't interested in such things or in telling a detailed story but in the attitudes of these prisoners, the interaction between them and later between them and their captors. Actors and director have decided against any particular characterisation, there is no hint of these people's backgrounds, not even the man who does later become identified as actually being Greek, has no trace of a different accent, is this to emphasise the way in which their resistance role has overridden their individuality? To place the emphasis on Sartre's existentialist ideas of people making their own lives and living by their own decisions?

When the leader of their group is also brought into the room, held by the Milice until he has established his identity and innocence (and he is confident of being released), the prisoners are unanimous in protecting his secret while he feels alienated and deprived because he will avoid their fate. For me the intellectual discussion was less than illuminating but the talk is balanced by powerful action, especially when the prisoners are confronted by their interrogators.

This play's first French audiences knew well enough that during the occupation resistance was not just against the German invader -- France itself was divided, but it is a salutary reminder to a modern audience, living themselves with terrorism that past fights against fascism and totalitarianism were internal battles and that is as true today and here as then. Interrogation and torture issues as much now as then. Although much of the torture in this play takes place offstage we see quite enough to be disturbing, especially when Jamie Lennox's Henri repeatedly has his head held underwater while another of his interrogators sits on his back munching bully beef from a can. Lennox's is a strong performance but I found myself worried for the actor not the character - the effect of the overall lack of characterisation. There are other grisly moments of both physical and mental torture and a killing that could be seen as either merciful or tactical.

How does one handle torture? George Rainsford's young François fears he won't be able to. Canoris (Kevin Heaney), the Greek, claims that if they had tortured him when he expected it at his first interrogation in Greece he would have cracked but because they kept it until later he didn't. You don't die for a cause, says another prisoner, you live for it, so what makes these men and this woman accept the pain, is it really pride? Lucie seems to have lost all feeling: Charlie Covell plays her with a mechanical flatness, only in moments with her brother does she reveal any compassion, sometimes this is effective, but taken too far it suggests no thought or understanding. in the playing.

What about the torturers? David Couch plays one who finds it fun, a cliché persecutor, but his fastidious superior (Laurence McGrandles, who is allowed to build more on his character) distances himself and seems to have limits. He knows his own time will come and cynically jokes that the British have already landed in Nice. Andrew Fallaize is allowed some flippant flamboyance as Clochet and the differentiation between these Milice characters emphasises that lack among the prisoners. Even the still free Jean (Sam Hodges) seems bland. In this the director may be following the dramatist's intention but I think Sartre had a better sense of theatre than that. However, none of this stops the play from have an impact. This is a timely revival.

Continues at the Finborough until 7th July 2007

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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