No Exit: ‘hell is other people’

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Josie Williams (Inez Serrano), Joe Stanton (Joseph Garcin) and Shona Graham (Estelle Rigault)

speaks to the cast and production team of Castle Theatre Company’s ‘No Exit’.

Many people, I imagine, view Elvet Riverside as something close to hell, which makes it the ideal setting for my rendezvous with the team behind the upcoming production of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist masterpiece: No Exit.

As I arrive, Joseph Garcin (broodingly played by Joe Stanton) is welcomed to hell by a bored and sarcastic valet (Mike Bedigan). Instead of the hellfire and sulphur of popular imagination, however, Sartre’s vision of damnation is simply a drawing room with Second Empire furniture, cohabited with two other condemned souls. This may not seem that bad at first, but director Emily Hinchliffe urges the gravity of the situation: “there’s a bronze thing, a knife and three chairs—and that’s it for eternity!”

Many people are aware of Sartre’s famous declaration that ‘hell is other people’, and later in the rehearsal it’s a strange experience to hear it delivered in its original context by Stanton. “When he says the line, they’re about to basically murder each other,” enthuses Josie Williams (Inès), “they’ve driven each other to absolute insanity”. The play’s background in Sartre’s famous existentialist philosophy is what drew Hinchliffe to direct it, but producer Soraya Rahall is keen to emphasise that audiences need not fear being bogged down in weighty philosophical discourse. “This play approaches existentialism in a way that makes it so easy to understand,” she says reassuringly, “it puts it out there as a very understandable concept”. Rahall believes that at the heart of the play is Sartre’s conviction that “you go around your whole life identifying people by what other people think about them.” ‘Hell is other people’ because other people have the power to define us against our will.

Hinchliffe and Rahall clearly run a tight ship, and during the rehearsal Sartre’s lengthy monologues are anatomically picked apart. “It’s a play about three people in a room,” explains Stanton, “it hinges on the dialogue”. The importance of dialogue has led the production along a minimalistic line, and Rahall tells me that they have kept the actors’ movements as simple as possible. “At the end of the day,” she explains, “it doesn’t matter if the characters are prancing around the stage, trying to attack each other”. Yet audiences should still expect a sense of spectacle due to the group’s idiosyncratic choice of venue: Castle’s Norman Chapel. Hinchliffe appreciates the irony of staging hell in a church, but such a striking venue is not without its difficulties. “There are pillars everywhere,” Hinchliffe exclaims, “just everywhere!”

There’s a striking change of tone as the cast switch from rehearsing the play’s opening to its final moments. This is primarily due to the entrance of Shona Graham as the simpering yet unhinged Estelle, and Josie Williams as a cackling and demonic Inès. Both are genuinely terrifying. I ask the cast if it’s challenging to portray such dark characters. “With acting, people tell you early on that your character, even when you’re playing a villain, thinks that they’re right and doesn’t think that they’re evil,” offers Graham. “It’s a really interesting play as these characters are aware of how evil they are”. The horrific reasons for the characters’ confinement in hell become apparent throughout the play, yet we can still see ourselves in them. “Some of their characteristics are certainly very human,” Stanton testifies, “like denial, and being distant and unnecessarily sarcastic.”

Once the rehearsal is over, I ask Hinchliffe why audiences should attend No Exit. “Because it’s going to be sick,” she immediately responds, but qualifies this with the more cerebral observation that “Sartre is stripping humanity of everything that you build you personality on”. The production “quite literally tears people down to their absolute breaking point” Rahall adds. My experience in the rehearsal room suggests they’re right. No Exit is, after all, going to be sick.

‘No Exit’ is at the Norman Chapel, Castle, from Fri 12 June to Sat 13 June. 

Photo: Eleanor Hinchliffe

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