Here’s the scenario: a group of self-centred, obnoxious people confined to a room where they have to live together 24/7 while being watched by unseen strangers all the time. Soon the veneer of good manners crumbles, and they start to argue and fightNo, it’s not Big Brother but Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of hell in his 1944 play No Exit (Huis Clos).
Sartre’s existentialist version is worse because his three characters trapped in this claustrophobic co-habitation cannot leave, be voted out or vote out the others, so they are doomed to perpetual punishment. Moreover, they cannot sleep, or even blink, and it is always light, so there is no escape from their own consciousness or from the others’ company. And, of course, they can’t kill each other or themselves because they’re already dead. It’s a helluva situation to be in.
It has to be admitted that there are times during this Chelsea Players’ staging of Sartre’s dramatic masterpiece when one feels like escaping oneself. However, that is not the fault of Robin Hodges’ quietly compelling production (which – quite rightly – has no interval) but because the tiny Landor theatre is so infernally hot and airless. Maybe it’s a cunning plot to make the audience experience the same suffocating atmosphere as the damned denizens feel in the play.
In Sartre’s chamber of hell there is virtually nothing to distract the occupants from their plight. The windowless, mirrorless walls are draped in black, while an unremitting bright light shines on the few items therein: three sofas, an antique bronze ornament and a paper-knife (design by Fernando de Souza and Chris Mounsey). After the Valet has shown the trio in, it gradually becomes clear what they have done in their former lives to be sent here. It also becomes apparent that they have not been put together randomly but have been carefully chosen to inflict maximum pain on each other: there is no need for instruments of torture as they act as each other’s torturers.
Joseph Garcin, as well as being an unfaithful husband, is – or was – a campaigning journalist who used the excuse of pacifism to conceal his cowardice and treason. (Sartre, who fought with the French Resistance, is surely condemning Nazi collaborators here.) Post-office clerk Inez Serrano has been sadistically exploitative in her sexual relationships with both men and women, while the seemingly demure Estelle Rigault has not only deceived the rich husband she married for money but has caused her lover to blow out his brains after drowning their child.
Although they know they will hurt each other as soon as they allow relationships to form, it proves impossible for them to ignore each other in this evenly balanced mnage trois as each is defined by how the other two react to them. Joseph and Estelle need the others to reinforce the false image they have of themselves but Inez, though as narcissistic as they are, is without self-deception and so to some extent represents Sartre’s view that only once we are free of delusions do we have the possibility of achieving real good.
As Joseph, Dean Lyle gains in confidence after a shaky start, to show a man ill at ease with himself who cultivates an air of cynical indifference to hide his guilt. Although there is not the distinction in class that there should be, Hannah Richards’ unscrupulous but refreshingly honest Inez contrasts nicely with Alethea Steven’s seemingly softer but actually equally manipulative Estelle. And Arthur Browne gives the Valet an amusingly insolent manner and a diabolical grin which suggests that he has seen this sort of thing countless times before.