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”.
What's easy to forget is that, in its proper context, this phrase is meant literally, for the play sees three characters trapped in Sartre's version of hell – a dilapidated room from which there is 'no escape' (one of several translations of the title).
Ushered in by a gloomy valet (Thomas Padden), the first victim to arrive is Garcin (Will Keen), a murdered pacifist journalist who it turns out was less than gracious to his loyal wife. He's soon joined by two women – Ines (Michelle Fairley), a lesbian with the air of a cruel schoolmistress, and Estelle (Fiona Glascott), a rags-to-riches socialite and expert flirt.
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.
They find themselves in a Catch-22 of sexual politics and realise that, in place of torture chambers and fire and brimstone, their hell is the fact that they must live with their guilt in the presence of others (a sentiment echoing Sartre's own soul-searching during the occupation).
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, who also found their drama in nothingness. But as theatre it now seems rather hackneyed and, dare I say it, dull by comparison to the plays it helped to inspire, lacking the poetry of Godot or the suspense of The Birthday Party.
Paul Hart's production is effectively staged in-the-round, with designer Lucy Osborne matching the dog-chewed “second empire” furniture with peeling regency wallpaper to create a fitting atmosphere of decay. And 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.