Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is a truly thought-provoking piece of theatre. Originally published as the French Huis Clos and subsequently translated to English, this play takes place not on Earth, but in the afterlife — more specifically, hell. Whilst it is a bizarre setting, it plays host to one of Sartre’s best existential plays where three “hell-dwellers” are locked in a fairly normal (if a little mundane) room with no instruments of torture, leading them to wonder where the “hell” they had envisaged was. After just over 90 minutes of varied and often direct discussion, they realise that they are the torturers of each other, playing on each other’s weaknesses to drive them insane for eternity.
The Cellar Theatre just underneath the Holme Building acted as the setting for SUDS’ staging on the play. After being welcomed into a dim-lit holding room, we were ushered into the small 36-seat theatre by the Valet (Thomas Hetherington-Welch), which had the chairs in a circular arrangement around the set to allow for a 360 view of the stage. Compliments must be given to the production team, headed by Thomas Hanaee and Caitlin Williams, for the refined set design and clever costuming.
The challenge of three major characters (Callum McManis, Emma Burns and Margaret Thanos) and one minor character putting on the 90 minute No Exit must not be underestimated. It requires a great deal of focus and attention to detail, and to even attempt a play of this magnitude demands great respect. However, with such a challenging play, even minor lapses are very easy to notice, which was, unfortunately, the case more than a few times in the play. A relatively neutral accent was employed by all characters, which in itself was not a problem. However the frequent, albeit brief, lapses back into an Australian accent were often quite grating. Character was dropped on stage by performers more than once, often when not speaking. This distracted from the speaker and rendered the dramatic energy rather disjointed.
One of the most striking parts of the original play is its dramatic tension. Unfortunately, this was rather lacking throughout the entire play. When it did occur, it was often almost pantomimic, which again provided some distraction. Other parts of the play were rather devoid of energy, which was a shame as some of Sartre’s work seemed a little lost. One of the great characteristics of the work is the anguish felt by all characters at some point due to the tension between their resolution to accept their fate and their inability to face what is in front of them. This sense was only made clear in rare moments, and very loosely. An example of this occurs when the characters, especially Estelle, realise that they are dead. The anguish could certainly have been developed further.
That said, the promise of all four performers cannot be understated. Hetherington-Welch kicked off the play with an impressive swagger, and McManis proved to be the highlight of the play with his generally confident and assured delivery, especially when solo. Burns developed the pragmatism of Inez nicely, and Thanos’ entry as Estelle was certainly entertaining. The challenge of such a complex play is great and the promise the four performers displayed was certainly pleasing.
There were minor mishaps on stage which is to be expected in a university production. The doorbell fell off which drew the audience’s focus, but the moment was expertly handled by the Valet. Some sound was slightly delayed, although overall the sound and lighting added very nicely to the ambiance that the production team was trying to convey.
The crux of the play can be summarised by Sartre’s famous line, “l’enfer, c’est les autres [hell is other people]”. Inez was the most effective at portraying this message, with her quasi-callous and selfish actions towards both Estelle and Garcin. The tension between Garcin and Estelle however at times felt rather forced, and slightly obscured this premise.
Overall, it was certainly an experience watching SUDS pull off a most interesting and, admittedly, difficult play. The performers all displayed great promise and, with some more experience and polish, their next performance will undoubtedly be even better.
SUDS’ No Exit is running at the Cellar Theatre until 17 August. For tickets and more information, click here.