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Review Round-up: Sartre's Huis Clos Revived at Trafalgar

By • West End
Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist masterpiece Huis Clos is revived at Trafalgar Studios 2 from 9 January 2012 (previews from 5 January), the final production in the Donmar Warehouse's latest residency at the theatre.

The 1944 play centres on three people who are trapped in hell. There’s no way out for three who share their memories together. Will Keen stars alongside Michelle Fairley, Fiona Glascott and Thomas Padden in the production, which is directed by Paul Hart.

Translated by Stuart Gilbert, Huis Clos has design by Lucy Osbourne and music and sound design by Tom Mills. It continues until 28 January 2012.

Theo Bosanquet

"Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play, written during the Nazi occupation of Paris, is best known now as the source of the phrase 'hell is other people' … The play sees three characters trapped in Sartre's version of hell – a dilapidated room from which there is 'no escape' … The trio, at first courteous, come to discover that they are mutual torturers as their judgements of each other's pasts, combined with their own neuroses about their legacies on earth, becomes too heady a combination for any of them to handle effectively … Their hell is the fact that they must live with their guilt in the presence of others … As a forum of existential theorising Huis Clos merits attention, and it's clear to see Sartre's influence on the likes of Beckett and Pinter … But as theatre it now seems rather hackneyed … Paul Hart's production is effectively staged in-the-round … Keen, Fairley and Glascott make for a fine triumvirate of torturers; yet another stellar cast for the Donmar at Trafalgar season. Nevertheless, I can't in good faith recommend Huis Clos to any but the most hardened (and academically inclined) of theatregoers."

Michael Billington

"Watching Paul Hart's fine revival of Jean-Paul Sartre's infernal triangle, I was struck by the play's far-reaching influence … Sartre's point is that they are defined by their past actions and that their particular torment is to be chained together for eternity … Sartre adds spice to the situation through a series of sexual power-games … All this comes across in Hart's production… Hart even adopts the Donmar style of using a complex sound-score, created by Tom Mills … Keen, edgily dapper as Garcin, expertly hints at the character's mental turmoil … Michelle Fairley also avoids the obvious traps in playing Ines … Glascott as Estelle admirably conveys the sense of a sumptuous society beauty haunted by her deeds. The three actors effortlessly transcend Sartre's occasional resort to sexual stereotypes and remind us why he was the spiritual godfather to so many later dramatists."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"The title, which literally means 'behind closed doors', is a French legal term … They perform attitudes rather than actions, in vocabulary that is often extravagant … They are prone to moments of agonised pleading and bursts of gallows humour … Will Keen is intense as the tightly wound Garcin … Michelle Fairley exudes gutsy conviction and self-loathing as Ines… while Fiona Glascott conveys the right mix of gauzy elusiveness and quivering ripeness as elegant socialite Estelle. Clearly the play influenced Samuel Beckett … Admirers of Beckett's deadpan handling of paradox will savour Sartre's writing - and will appreciate the discipline of Paul Hart's prickly production, which has a spare yet effective design by Lucy Osborne. But this is theatre at its most claustrophobic and punishing, and many will find it hard work."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"After almost two interval-free hours… one wanly concludes that hell is also being forced to sit through Huis Clos in a dusty old English translation by Stuart Gilbert, who died more than 40 years ago … The writing is windy and none of the characters come into sharp focus … The sexual spark entirely fails to ignite in Paul Hart’s plodding production, in which the performers often seem to be understandably embarrassed by the inert and pretentious lines they are required to deliver. There are hints that redemption… might be possible if only these damned individuals discovered some honesty in their flawed characters, but since they are all so unlovable, and so artificially stagy, it is impossible to care about the wretched crew … The relief of finally escaping Sartre’s existentialist dud about hell is simply heavenly."

Sarah Hemming
Financial Times

"One can have all sorts of hellish experiences in a theatre, but in the case of this play, the effect is deliberate … You emerge from Paul Hart’s fine, discomfiting production thinking that hell for these characters is being forced to face the truth about themselves … The claustrophobia is intense, as is the constant sense of watching and being watched … A series of cat-and-mouse games reveals that the three have been carefully chosen to drive each other mad. Keen, Fairley and Glascott give meticulously pitched performances that complement one another vividly … By about two-thirds of the way through, the energy sags and the repetitive structure becomes tedious rather than intriguing. The tightly wound performances, to compensate, tip into hysteria. But this is still an unsettling revival of a play that… reflects the demand for self-scrutiny and accountability that the traumas of the second world war provoked."

Libby Purves
The Times

"The play has certainly not mellowed with age: if you are feeling a bit too chipper after a Christmas break, here’s just the thing to curb those romping high spirits … Into a flaking Second Empire drawing room… a taciturn valet ushers three damned souls … Each comes fresh from a squalid and dishonourable death, and is intermittently tormented by fading visions of the living … Hart sets the play in the round: so for a cramped 105 minutes the pallid, concentrated faces on benches opposite add to the ghastliness. Will Keen is greasily furtive and tormented as Garcin, rising to violence; Fiona Glascott is a mean coquette as Estelle; and Michelle Fairley, looking like a young Vanessa Redgrave in a rage … More interesting is the play’s curious closeness to mainstream moral theology. Your actions define you, and if there is damnation it comes not from a vengeful God but from your own fossilised inability to change … Le diable, c’est vous. Brrr."

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