Huis Clos, Trafalgar Studio 2, London


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I intend it as a compliment (I think) to suggest that the subterranean confines of Trafalgar Studio 2 provide an ideal venue if you want to create the sense of a stifling claustrophobic hell.

In this powerful production of Sartre's Huis Clos - where the infernal afterlife is imagined as being cooped up in a cramped, windowless and mirrorless Second Empire drawing room with two hostile strangers - director Paul Hart and designer Lucy Osborne have compounded the atmosphere of psychologically inescapable doom by trapping the audience, who sit on all four sides of the action. within the same walls that imprison the protagonists.

In a further astutely imaginative twist, these premises look as though they have been the victim of aerial bombing. The walls have great gaping holes; the fine furniture is shattered round the edges; the chandelier frazzles the light.  This communicates, even to punters who have no direct knowledge of it, the marks of the play's date of wartime composition.  These range from the fact that its tight, one-act form is partly the result of a need to get the Parisian audiences home before the German curfew to Sartre's uneasy feelings about his relationship with the Resistance. But the other benefit is that it registers how the deepest of our dungeons is the mind itself.  The crucial moment when the locked door springs open but none of Sartre's trio are able to make a bid for freedom is prefigured in the ruined design (with its shades of the later scenes in Sarah Kane's Blasted) which has many points of potential exit.  240

There are no Dantesque punishments in Sartre's indoor version of inferno.  His devil is a savvy, ingenious customer who arranges for the damned to indulge in mutual DIY mental torture.  Hart's production, the last in the Donmar's showcase for rising directors, is exceedingly well-cast.  The main trio of performances (there's also a drolly subversive and pert valet from Thomas Padden)  present with a nightmarish, sometimes balefully, comic vividness what can authentically be described as the menage a trois from hell.  Will Keen exudes haunted desperation as the pacifist journalist who was shot for deserting the army and futilely seeks confirmation that he was not a coward from Fiona Glascott's flighty, society fashion-plate, Estelle, a baby-murderer who would, unfortunately, forgive him anything for a fling.  The triangle is completed by Michelle Fairley -- all glinting malice, worrying fixation, and erotic jealousy as the lesbian Ines, the cleverest of the bunch who at least knows that her afterlife, as did her life, depends upon doing others down.  "Hell is other peoaylple," the journalist famously declares.  Well, if that's too much a generalisation, the production certainly convinces you that hell is these particular people.

To January 28