The Lord Stanley is a wonderful little theatre venue in North London. The food menu is nothing short of outstanding, and there’s currently plenty on the theatrical menu as well – including a strong performance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s excellent No Exit. There are no surprises in this performance of the classic Sartre piece, but it is an engaging take on a classic.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit in 1944. It is an existentialist piece which sees three deceased beings arrive in the afterlife only to find that hell is not full of flames, torture and whips – instead, it consists of people being forced to spend eternity in the company of others. At first, this does not seem so hellish to the three damned strangers, but as time moves on they are forced to confront the fact that hell is, indeed, other people.
The set is delightfully minimal; three old and creaky chairs and a strip of dark brocade form the set. The front of the stage has a lattice of bamboo rods from floor to ceiling which act as a cage to keep the actors locked firmly in the boundaries of their set (for all of eternity, one presumes.) The play takes place in heavy darkness with very smart use of lighting for the flashback scenes, and also a very simple – but gorgeous – visual when the door is opened.
The acting is good across the board. Phoebe Higson is a strong choice for Estelle, who is perhaps the most complex character of the piece. Estelle comes across as tedious, naive and tiresome, but in time she is revealed to be perhaps the most cruel and evil of the tenants in this room in hell – and Higson handles this multifaceted approach admirably. It is strange that the Valet has been eliminated from this production, as his character has served as a key source of information in other interpretations of this same play – but his presence is, admittedly, not overly missed.
The play has many strengths, but regretfully, there are some distracting weaknesses also. Facial expressions often seem overdramatic, and verge on comical rather than emotional. Disappointingly for me, the scenes in which Inez continually sexualises Estelle are too intense for the balancing act that is Sartre’s play. In this version, Estelle is constantly made uncomfortable by Inez’s relentless pawing, groping and kissing and it upsets the triangle. The charm of ‘hell is other people’ is that for these people, they are equal and equivocal torturers of each other. By putting Estelle in a position of near constant, mainly unwanted, sexual harassment the equality goes out of the window.
Further more, much is made of the lack of whips and chains and physical torture, but this particular harassment has moved from the mental anguish suffered by the inhabitants of the room into being actual physical torture – which isn’t the point of the piece.
That being said, this is certainly a strong effort and one that is worth seeing. This trio of actors do well to bring an important play to life and they do so in a manner which encourages lively debate and conversation afterwards.
See No Exit at the Lord Stanley between March 22-24th by buying tickets here.