Sartre locates his fantasia on the theme that “hell is other people” in a stuffy, mid-19th-century French waiting room. The wily old existentialist sought to create an environment of maximum claustrophobia within which his three ill-assorted characters could drive each other stir crazy.
Cowardly Garcin, predatory lesbian Inez and spoilt brat Estelle are a match made in, well, hell - an irony that dawns quickly on these recently deceased souls. Too quickly, one might think, as the entire premise of the play is established within the first 30 minutes. The remaining hour needs a sure directorial hand to prevent the audience from identifying too closely with the trio’s tiresome eternity.
Director Luke Kernaghan sets himself a hurdle by locating the play in a forbidding world of bare brick walls and flickering angle-poise lamps. No satire here, then: the only things missing from Jess Wiesner’s grim designs are the very instruments of torture the text denies.
Kernaghan is not content to let the play speak for itself. He imposes a political slant by alluding to the dark days of 1970s Argentina, but he does not follow this through with any conviction. His use of the classic Frank Hauser translation is especially incongruous in this chamber of horrors where Garcin’s cascade of urbane, middle-English idioms are delivered in a thick Spanish accent by the otherwise impressive Miguel Oyarzun.
Aside from some forgettable video fuzz and the occasional dip into dramatically unintegrated tango dancing, none of which is obtrusive enough to affect the play one way or the other, the Argentinian adventure is little more than a distraction.
A further problem arises from Kernaghan’s decision (cost-driven?) to dispense with the character of the Valet and replace him with a disembodied voice on the intercom. Sartre clearly places this fourth character inside the room and it is impossible for the damned trio to interact convincingly with a crackly phone line.
Notwithstanding all these reservations however, the production grips. Its chief asset is Alexis Terry’s terrific Estelle: she is petulant, childlike, desperate, passionate and broken. A pity, then, that such a remarkable performance should be offset by the posturing Inez of Elisa de Grey, an actress who sets out her character’s stall the moment she enters and does little to develop it thereafter. Overall, though, the pace and intensity of Kernaghan’s closing scenes do much to atone for his conceptual meanderings. Not quite heavenly this Huis clos, but far from infernal.
- Mark Valencia