When the schedule for this term’s plays at the drama barn was released back in December, I have to admit that one title fixed my attention: Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And last night, having beaten my way through the drizzle and waited at the head of the snaking queue, I descended into the barn. If there’s one thing that never fails to surprise me, it’s the versatility of the theatre space in the barn; I’ve been more times than I can think but each individual performance has retained its own distinct layout in my memory.The first performance of No Exit was no different. As the audience processed into hell, I took in the tiered staging; three separated, vacant chairs; empty frames where mirrors should be; and a mantelpiece with a solitary clock. It seems that Sartre’s notion of hell is situated inside the confines of a hotel room. But more than anything it’s the lighting which attracts one’s attention; a cascade of alternately pulsating lightbulbs, a flashing lamp in the corner, and out in the corridor a red haze.
All rather unsettling. And so the play begins: in comes a stern looking Garcin (Angus Brown) followed by a valet (Sam Zak). Garcin is dressed formally with slicked hair and perpetually intense features: the valet is dressed in black tie, white kid gloves and a devilish demeanour which verged on the feline. As Garcin inspects his surroundings and attempts to come to terms with his situation, the valet offers a mixture of concealed mockery and gloating. The play got off to a shaky start; the almost overly devilish valet with his extravagant gestures and evil smile jarred with Brown’s uncertain monotone which made for slightly uncomfortable viewing. However, things definitely picked up with the next arrivals as first Inez (Elvie Broom) then Estelle (Miranda Batki-Braun) enter the room.
Once the three chairs have been occupied by our damned trio, the actors’ chemistry and Sartre’s mechanisms begin to take effect. After accepting that there isn’t a horned, trident-wielding devil responsible for their eternal torture, the conversation turns to introductions and fathoming the “why we are here” question. As this progresses, it becomes clear that the torture isn’t physical at all. The three, previously unacquainted, individuals interrogate one another, finding the weak spots and exploiting the insecurities until the inevitable: “hell is other people”.
It was during this build up that the actors came into their own, and though I must admit that I was utterly revolted by the character of Inez, I have to hand it to Elvie Broom for portraying such a contemptible woman. Indeed, hats must especially be doffed in the direction of Miranda Batki-Braun for her consistent performance of the snobbish and conceited Estelle; the fiddling with her clothes, the received pronunciation, and body language which exuded elegance all contributed to a memorable performance. Angus Brown’s Garcin found his feet and gave a solemnly introspective performance when he wasn’t fiercely sparring with Inez. All the while the actors revolved around the stage; occupying the three chairs at different points in the play which gave a sense of fluidity to the otherwise restricted performance.
All things considered, No Exit was a thoughtful and effective realization of Sartre’s iconic play and the innovative use of set and costume laid the foundations for some inspiring acting between the trio. Suffice to say, the hell and damnation in the play were well and truly matched by a damned good production on the stage.