Huis Clos, King's Head Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

For me, the central pleasure of seeing State of Play's new staging, in honour of Sartre's centenary, was getting a clearer sense of the complexities: how themes and ironies are wound round each other. I noticed, for example, the importance of eyes, mirrors and windows. Noticing that their escorting devil doesn't blink, the former newspaper editor Garcin realises the importance of blinking - "Four thousand evasions, four thousand rests an hour." But eyes keep cropping up: the eyes of Garcin's wife, tortured by his infidelities; the green eyes of Estelle, his fellow resident of Hell, who murdered her baby and drove her lover to suicide. When Estelle demands a mirror to check her make-up - in Hell, you can see yourself only as others see you - Inez, the murderously seductive lesbian, offers her own eyes as mirrors.

There are no windows there, either; but when the dead peer back at Earth, they see their former associates - wives, colleagues - sitting by windows. Sartre plays with the notion that controlling what we see and how we are seen is central to human existence.

Another pleasing feature of the play is seeing how the damned repeat themselves. In life, Garcin was a pacifist whose stance masked a real cowardice; in death, he adopts a pose of stoicism, sitting with his head in his hands and contemplating his sins, but again his action is really an evasion. This is the sin - allowing fear to shut us off from the world. The cruelty that Inez practised toward her lover, the indifference that Estelle felt toward the men in her life - those are manifestations of a self-absorption that springs from fear. "Hell is other people," Garcin thinks, but the real hell is that we can't escape ourselves.

The main virtue of Drew Ackroyd's direction is clarity rather than imagination - Sartre doesn't leave much room for manoeuvre, but the opening accordion music and the feeble decadence of the devil suggest that this is probably as well. As Estelle, Suzy Cooper gives an impressively detailed performance; and Kristin Milward suggests admirably Inez's intelligence, and sadism that springs from desperation. But Emile Faurie is a colourless, hangdog Garcin. Not, then, a great production; but I'm beginning to think that it may be a great play.

To 25 September (020-7226 1916)