In today’s world of reality TV and instant celebrity, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 vision of a place of damnation in which one of the greatest torments is that there are no mirrors feels chillingly prescient. “Hell is other people” when their faces, distorted by lust, fear or self-deception, are the only place we can see ourselves reflected.
Director Paul Hart emphasises this point by staging the play in the round. It is an effective choice. As Ines, Estelle and Garcin – three recently dead strangers who find themselves locked into a decaying hotel room together – circle each other warily, trying to work out why they are there, we share their claustrophobia and confinement. Whispering, giggling or just fidgeting in our seats, the nagging sensation of also being on show is inescapable. Sound designer Tom Mills’s dream-like wisps of music, which break through like weak radio signals from the land of the living, further reinforce this sense of worlds colliding.
The most striking aspect of Sartre’s writing is its icy clarity. The notion of redemption is for fools and the self-deluding; we are damned, now and always, by the most pernicious jailor: ourselves. In this context, the careful specificity of the hotel room’s Second Empire furnishings is an existentialist joke, tempting both the characters and the audience into a futile search for meaning (and answers) in the layout of chairs and chaise lounges.
The play also mines a deep vein of bleak humour in its reframing of Hell as a hotel where you just can’t get the staff. As the mysterious Valet, a pitch-perfect Thomas Padden introduces each ‘guest’ to the room with an insolent deference that makes it quite clear that the tables have turned. His bored shrug when asked by Garcin why there is a paper knife when there are no books is eloquent in its muteness – exposing the absurdity of the maze of trivial rules we construct in order to lose ourselves.
This production is at its best when it is at its quietest, reflecting the near surgical precision with which Sartre flays the skin of self-importance away from the room’s reluctant inhabitants. Will Keen is compelling as Garcin, a journalist shot for deserting the army, when he lets us glimpse via a stammer or facial twitch the cowardice that his character has idealised as heroic pacifism. But his sudden moments of melodramatic shouting and door-banging are jarring; threatening to tear the invisible spider web of action and reaction that binds the characters together.
This is a particular problem with embittered lesbian post office clerk, Ines, as played by Michelle Fairley. She arrives on such a crest of malevolent anger that there is little else for her to do but get louder. Ines’s role as master manipulator – she revels in controlling others by getting them to see her through her eyes – needs more subtle direction than it receives here.
Fiona Glascott gives a more expansive performance as cruelly beautiful socialite Estelle. By turns imperious, coquettish and dismissive, she excels at laying bare the sharp and cutting nature of her character’s superficiality. Whether rejecting Ines’s advances by spitting in her face or telling Garcin in a perfunctory and business-like tone that she loves him, just so he will want her, she shows the emptiness at the heart of this “fallen lark”.
By the end of the play it has been revealed that each character has blood on their hands. In different ways they are responsible for the death of others. But as this production makes clear, when it remembers to breathe out and allow the dialogue to chill the air, they are the rule not the exception. When the hotel door swings open in the final scenes, all three choose to remain. Because, in the end, where would they go? Each may loathe the other but their fear of becoming invisible, of being unremembered, is greater. Sartre’s brand of Hell is one that travels.
As the lights go down and we leave the characters locked into a vicious circle of recrimination and need, it is easy to be reminded of the lyrics of ‘Hotel California’: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” There is no exit from human nature.
On at Trafalgar studios from 5 to 28 January
First published by Exeunt