Thursday, 12 January 2012

Theatre review: Huis Clos

Yep, it's definitely January - after the fluffier fare of XmasTM there's a definite heavier mood to London's theatre - even Noises Off feels a long time ago as the final Donmar Trafalgar instalment takes us to Hell. In a Shock!Twist! it turns out Trafalgar 2 is in fact a flexible space, Paul Hart's production of Huis Clos being configured in the round. Designer Lucy Osborne gives us a distressed, hotel-like room but with no bed, only three "second Empire" chairs or couches and a couple of seemingly random objects whose relevance will surely become apparent to the room's new inhabitants. Garcin (Will Keen) is (or was) a South American journalist who mistreated his wife when alive, Ines (Michelle Fairley) a predatory lesbian murderer and Estelle (Fiona Glascott) a beautiful, cold-hearted French socialite. They are all recently deceased and though they don't know quite what the rules are yet they do know they're in Hell. The valet (Thomas Padden) who shows them in is quite used to the newcomers' confused questions about where the torturers are.

Of course, as the most famous quote from Sartre's play has it, Hell is other people, and the trio gradually realise they are to be each other's torturers. Not only because the combination of people has been chosen to clash but also because, as is repeatedly affirmed from the start, the room contains no mirrors: The damned must instead see themselves through their cellmates' eyes, stripped of the illusions they project onto themselves to make existence more bearable. The atmosphere in Hart's production is always intense and uncomfortable as befits the subject matter while Tom Mills' snatches of music and sound add atmosphere at unexpected moments. Although at times it's all a bit too much and the play felt a bit overly long to me, the points made more times than necessary and I did wonder if it was the characters or the audience who were meant to be in Hell (the front row of the seating bank opposite me seemed to be a designated napping area.) But it's powerfully performed, Fairley's character in particular taking a perverse glee in their situation that adds another level of the sinister to what was hardly a party to begin with.

Huis Clos by Jean Paul Sartre in a translation by Stuart Gilbert is booking until the 28th of January at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

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