Culture | Three’s a crowd

Players' Theatre reawakens the claustrophobia of Sartre's No Exit

It’s no coincidence that Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of hell so closely resembles the average theatre-goer’s idea of eternal torment. Written and performed in occupied France, Sartre’s No Exit – a drama of damnation, whose French title, Huis Clos, refers to a closed court hearing – feeds off the pervasive guilt of its time, indicting audiences as fiercely as the sinful souls on stage interrogate each other. No intermissions, scene breaks, nor lighting changes relieve the torment of the hell-bound. Why then, at the risk of claustrophobia, should the un-Occupied student submit to No Exit? The well-acted, well-directed revival at Players’ Theatre (running Sept. 22-25) makes a bracing case for our attention: each verbal laceration strips away at the characters’ vanity until we are left with something naked – the bare sight of human neediness.

The lights open on a windowless drawing-room in a nameless hotel. (The black box stage, its décor heavy and luxurious, is used to excellent, oppressive effect.) Enter Garcin (Rowan Spencer), a journalist with an unresolved case of machismo, led by the hotel valet (Spencer Malthouse). He is swiftly joined by Inez (Annie MacKay), a primly sadistic lesbian, and Estelle (Cece Culver-Grey), girlish and callous. What follows and fills the next ninety minutes is the drawn-out revelation of their shared predicament.

As it turns out, all three leads are dead; the hotel is hell, to which they have been condemned for the apparent purpose of getting on each other’s nerves. The first funny stabs at each character’s conscience begin to penetrate; eventually, full confessions of their crimes spill out. But what fascinates characters and spectators alike is the nature of their punishment. How can an eternity spent in the company of others be considered damnation? Is Garcin right to complain, in the play’s famous words, that “hell is – other people?” Conversation is the chief means of torture, and sucks up the little air available at Players’. The emphasis on extensive dialogue in No Exit has become the major challenge of staging the play nowadays. For every sharp exchange, there is a whiff of dated language (in S. Gilbert’s translation), or a reminder of static action.

Happily, the choices made by the director, Emma Benayoun, skillfully deflect these difficulties. By treating the play as a period piece (complete with slicked-back hair, sharp suits, and long skirts), Benayoun saves us from wincing at lines like, “[He’s] a god-damned bloody swine.” The play’s lack of movement, meanwhile, is smoothed over by [the] elegance of the stage direction. The triangles made by the three figures shift so fluidly that the absence of larger gestures hardly registers; and when Estelle finally snaps, her flurry of activity has the quality of an explosion. Furthermore, the actors rise to the technical challenge of a ménage-à-trois: that of expressive silence, since one of them must always stand on the outside of the conversation. Especially good at this dramatic listening is Spencer, whose initial suavity crumbles under the revelation that, after all, Garcin is a bit thick.

What makes the production compelling as well as graceful, though, is its ambiguous attitude toward the play’s obsessions with hell, confession, and salvation (for an atheist, Sartre’s sensibility was remarkably Catholic). The “existentialist message” of No Exit appears to be that people are each other’s hell and each other’s hope. Sartre constantly balances the conviction that lives are damned by individual action against the belief that forgiveness matters. “One person’s faith would save me,” Garcin pleads. The usual interpretation of No Exit takes the unforgiving view that his soul is beyond salvation, and presents the ending as the last word in despair.

This reading has been my problem with the play ever since I encountered it in high school. Like the model of hell itself, “nothing is left to chance” in Sartre’s drama. Everything – personality, past, instinct – seems stacked against the characters, preventing them from making anything but an empty gesture toward redemption. It took this production to change my mind. For, as Benayoun told me, the disillusions of No Exit may lead to catharsis as much as to despair. “Barriers – the characters’ own constructions – are stripped down,” she said, “and nothing is left to hold them back.” Her staging does not press a single conclusion; rather, it leaves the final judgment delicately open to the viewer. There is a particularly fine moment toward the end of the play, when the trio passes up their chance of escape. Is their reticence mere cowardice, or can the refusal to exit be taken for a triumph, the free decision that may reshape a twisted soul? I’m not sure, and you’ll have to be quick if you want to decide for yourself. No Exit runs for four days only.

No Exit runs from Sept. 22-Sept.25 at Player’s Theatre, located on the 3rd floor of the Shatner Building (3840 McTavish).