Huis Clos preview: “volatile, fast paced and intimate”

By Mellisa Tutesigensi

Huis Clos will be presented as part of the upcoming ThornFest, a weekend of art, music and drama celebrating the talent of the North East. Sartre’s play analyses the essence of mortality, and forces anyone who encounters it to confront questions of their own freedom, desires and fears. It is a one act play, set in one room with four characters who are all focused on one pressing matter – their deaths and what will befall them in hell. Directors Freya Palmer and Jack Usher seek to provide the audience with a volatile, fast paced and intimate play, something that Usher believes has been lacking in Durham theatre of late.

One of the main themes of the play is the matter of how we should recognise and evaluate ourselves. During the course of the play, each of the three main characters (Garcin, Estelle and Inés) undergo a process of self-validation. They each become aware of the influence that other people can have on their own mental awareness. In seeking to perceive only themselves in hell, they realise their dependence on other people. Adam Murphy (Garcin) considers his character to be “layered,” someone that has to “choose the right moment to show his different personas.” It draws deeply on Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism, and offers deep introspection all in the confined space of one room. The play progresses towards the haunting conclusion that “hell is other people.”

It is a condensed and succinct exploration of the foundational ideas of Sartrean philosophy. When asked why this play was chosen, Palmer mentioned that it was her own personal familiarity with the philosophical themes addressed in the play that drew her to wanting to explore them again. She is aware of how nebulous and difficult Sartre is, but nonetheless maintains that the significant motifs and sentiments of the play will always be accessible. The challenge for the directors and cast has been to heighten this. Usher stated that they don’t want to get “bogged down in the philosophy,” but rather seek to refine and extract the author’s most important intention. Natalia Quiros Edmunds (Valet) agreed in saying that this is a play that concerns anyone, whether you’re interested in Sartre or not. “Everyone can connect with the character’s shock, denial and feeling of claustrophobia,” she attests. The enduring quality of this play is that it touches on emotions familiar to us all.

As well as the exploring the familiar, this production of Huis Clos promises to be unique in its adaptation. The performance will be set in a patient’s waiting room, instead of the original setting of a room in the style of the second French empire. The stage directions, as well as the pace of the dialogue, will all cater to conveying the intense, uncomfortable nature of the play. Usher has been intent on making the play full of energy in order to deliver this. For all involved, this has meant that the rehearsals have been very active. Quiros Edmunds has enjoyed the intimacy and “frantic nature” of rehearsals, stating that this suits the nature of the play.

As her first experience of directing, Palmer decided to adopt a collaborative and inclusive approach in rehearsals. Having seen Jacqueline Audry’s film adaptation of the play, Palmer (director) admitted the difficulty of expecting actors to perform a character in a particular way. Nonetheless, the energy and creative contribution from the cast members has allowed this production to become a work in its own right. They have endeavoured to incorporate effective subtleties and nuances, but wanted to avoid making any unnecessary changes. Any change that has been made to the original has been done in a way that is guaranteed to accentuate a particular part of the play or a character’s persona.

Ultimately, for both those familiar and unfamiliar with this play, this production of Huis Clos is sure to offer a distinct artistic take. When asked how they would convince people to see the performance, Murphy said that it will be “an hour of intimate acting.” Usher promised that it will be “something totally dystopian,” and urges everyone to “come and see how humans experience pressure and unfold under it.”

Photograph: Samuel Kirkman

‘Huis Clos’ will run from Sat 28th to Mon 29th Feb. Book your tickets here.

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