The only thing that indicates that Castle Theatre Company’s production of No Exit was put on in 4 days is the programme. A small talented cast and clever direction bring to life one of Sartre’s better known plays in an intimate, haunting performance.
No Exit depicts a perception of Hell, not as a torture chamber or fiery pit as is told on Earth, but as “other people”. Three characters, Estelle Rigault, Joseph Garcin and Inez Serrano are trapped in a room with no windows or mirrors, unable to sleep or close their eyes, with each other for eternity. The play explores these complex, rich personalities, as each develops into the others’ perceived salvation or their obstacle to achieving it. Their antagonism renders the need for a torturer redundant.
The stage was set very simply with three chairs, each draped in a red, blue or green cover, taking centre stage as the small audience filled the empty room. Performed in Castle’s Norman Chapel, the set did not require elaborate detail, as the room itself created the windowless, stony atmosphere of the afterlife. A desk with a large bronze torso, a bell and a paper knife was positioned in the background. The thick columns and slit like windows created a dungeon feel, recreating the same feeling of entrapment as the characters.
The setting created issues in that these columns did present an issue for several audience members’ sight lines, and seats ranged to a perfect view of all the action in the front row of the central benches, to a view of solid stone. The mobility and fluidity of Hinchliffe’s direction made a dialogue heavy, complex script engaging to watch from as many seats as possible and is to be commended.
The play’s opening did not seem quite as natural as the easy dynamic and rapport confidently achieved by Joe Stanton, Shona Graham and Josie Williams later in the play. Perhaps given its short rehearsal period and it being the first night, some hesitancy was displayed between Mike Bedigan as Valet and Joe Stanton as Joseph Garcin. Often comic pauses were rushed through, though their actual dialogue was well paced.
In terms of the physicality and use of space, Stanton was more slow to own his place on stage than his fellow performers, though the burden of entering first should be taken into account. Particularly in more comic moments, such as his wrestling with the bronze figure in the opening scene, this timidity was more evident. However, the line between a farcical exaggeration of physicality and comedy is difficult to draw in such an intimate space. Stanton became more comfortable on stage, and his performance became confident and natural. His voice is very well suited to the acoustics of the chapel, ranging from ringing anger to an echoing desperation. He played Garcin with a gravity that made his comedic parts more difficult yet worked entirely for him and the production.
The facial expressions and mannerisms Shona Graham gave Estelle were captivating in the intimate performance setting. She was at once a perfect caricature of the upper classes and their absurdities, and a realistic image of vulnerability and complexity. Her performance alternated from comic displays of naivety and flirtation, to a calculating, colder, crueler extreme with skill. The barefaced emotion of her revealing monologues about her previous existence and past crimes forced sympathy despite her twisted character. Her ability to switch from a Lady Macbeth-like, shaking wreck to a lustful, giggling girl should be respected, especially given the proximity of the front row. Her entrance on stage set her fellow actors at ease as they relaxed into the inter-cast harmony that makes the performance so engaging and easy to watch.
The predatory depiction of Inez Serrano by Josie Williams is another example of a very skilled physical performance, as she fully embodied the malicious, vindictive nature of Inez. She also allowed her character a rich dichotomy of vice and vulnerability, her cuttingly manipulative and shrewd behaviour a foil to Estelle’s bubbling naivety. Her cackling particularly at the play’s close was delightfully demonic. The final scene as the three laughed and then stopped in unison, contemplating what was to come, painted a picture that would remain with the audience as they made their way back to reality.
Never has Hell been a more enjoyable experience. To see such a brilliant play performed with such skill in a setting like Castle’s Norman Chapel is an unmissable experience.
Until 13 June, at the Norman Chapel, Castle.
Photo: Eleanor Hinchliffe