Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos explores an afterlife where hell is being with other people in a locked room, inflicting eternal torment on each other. If you recognised this brief summary as a key plot element from a beloved contemporary TV comedy (which I will not name for spoilers’ sake), look no further: the innovative, non-profit artists’ collective Peachy Keen Productions is bringing Sartre’s work to the Union.
No Exit revolves around Garcin, Inès, and Estelle, who find themselves in a room expecting to be tortured in hell. Slowly they realise the true nature of their afterlife: the stories of eternal fire, brimstone, and burning asphalt were false, and the room they are enclosed in is their hell. To make the scenario all the more claustrophobic, unrequited love begins to bloom between the three damned souls in a true Midsummer Night’s Dream-fashion. Darkly comical with its sinister overtones and brimming with expectable Sartre-ian existentialist concerns, director Rowan Wishart saw an opportunity to bring the surprisingly topical elements of the French philosopher’s 1944 work to the foreground in her adaptation.
“Basically, it’s a three-hander. Two of the characters are women, both of them very fleshed out. This is unusual for a play written in the ‘40s – for two women to have so much agency over a man is rare, even today.”
Written as a companion piece to one of his broader philosophical texts, Huis Clos was intended to clarify Sartre’s thoughts to the common reader, yet still posed some challenges in staging. “There is a reason this is studied at A level… some of the ideas are incredibly complex, the language is quite heavy, it’s hardcore philosophy with no absolute answers presented. We started coming to terms with the characters just recently”, Ms. Wishart explained.
“We’re in our early twenties, it’s fair to say that we have our own brief periods of existential crises where we ask ourselves the same questions that bugged Sartre’s mind.” Ms. Wishart also highlighted that while she does not intend to include political undertones in the play, she finds the issues of morality (and specifically the questions falling between the binary of good and bad) intriguingly topical in the current political climate.
The play’s title also applies to the cast: there will be No Exit for the actors, who will perform for an hour and fifteen minutes straight without leaving the Union’s Small Rehearsal Room to look at their lines. “This means that each member of our three-person cast has to learn a third of that heavy text – there is no space to mess up. (…) These are some of the most fleshed-out characters I’ve ever directed, and getting their unique layers and characteristics right has been extremely challenging.”
In addition to the restricted setup, Ms. Wishart mentioned Grace Cowie’s set design and the lighting as elements to keep an eye out for. The Small Rehearsal Room is an unconventional space to put on a play, leaving space for the crew to experiment with the lighting in innovative ways which Ms. Wishart preferred to keep as a surprise for her audience. “I certainly haven’t seen anything like it before in St Andrews, and we really hope it pays off.”
A fourth character makes a brief appearance: the Valet’s role is to take the damned trio to hell (much like Charon, Hades’s ferryman in Greek mythology). “I cast Guy Harvey in the role because I directed him in And Then There Were None, and he’s very good with dry British humour which suits the Valet perfectly. I had to apologise to him because I gave him very small roles in both plays… but he’s guaranteed to shine.” Much to her surprise, Mr. Harvey later revealed that he has 3000 listeners according to his music profile on Spotify, including songs from a West End show he played the lead in several years ago. “I can’t believe we cast the lead of a West End show in the smallest role twice”, concluded Ms. Wishart, laughing.
You still have a chance to reserve tickets to No Exit by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The show will be performed tonight and tomorrow at 7:30pm in the Small Rehearsal Room on the top floor of the Union.