Men Without Shadows @ Finborough Theatre, London

directed by
Mitchell Moreno

The Finborough is close to being a perfect setting for Sartre’s lost work, Men Without Shadows.

Of course, this is mostly down to Mamoru Iriguchi’s inspired stage design, which is rendered with a gruesome economy; moreover, the topography of the building – the lack of space, the menacingly ascendant temperature – promotes a certain seamlessness and affiliation with the action. As such, director Mitchell Moreno plays on the idea of spectatorship and the need for a witness a central branch of the argument in this play.

The play is more Iron in the Soul than Nausea. We are more concerned here with freedom and responsibility than ontology and phenomenology though they do come into the equation, naturally.

A group of resistance fighters have been caught by the Vichy police. We join them pacing moribundly back and forth in the attic of a commandeered townhouse. Their captors discuss opera, gastronomy and torture in a room below, weighing-up the cost of victory and defeat.

This is a splendid implementation of Sartre’s play. Whilst there are one or two obvious deviations from the text, these are generally tasteful and modernising. I suspect that this is a reaction to the language of Kitty Black’s original translation, which must be at least five decades old. There is one exception, however. In a clear reference to the Abu Ghraib photographs, one of the collaborators takes a snapshot of his bloodied victim. Did the analogy really need underling?

Personally, I don’t think so. The audience is perfectly capable of illuminating such thematic strands, and one could speculate that the production of Men Without Shadows alone not to mention the theatre-goers decision to attend is itself a reflection of its topicality and contemporariness. As it is, Moreno gets away with it. Just.

The prisoners are typically Sartrean, by which I mean hard work: haunted, absent; deeply, acutely and incredibly wise. Sartre struggles to write for women and Lucie is no exception thankfully Charlie Covell renders her believable. George Rainsford is also impressive as François, Lucie’s short-lived brother.

There is some dedicated acting. Jamie Lennox’s head is forced, repeatedly, into a trough of water, and held under at length. Uncomfortable viewing, to say the least.

Elsewhere, the captors struggle to fill the lofty roles to which they profess. Whilst the same could be said of the pitiful band upstairs, the affect is more pronounced here: they wield power; their ideas are authoritative and enforced.

But ultimately their power is tenuous, their dominance already undermined in Normandy. This realisation is the most provocative of all in a resoundingly successful condensation of Sartre’s thinking.

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