I’ve heard it described as “unstageable”. Perhaps it’s the words “French existentialism” that strikes such fear into the hearts of a prospective audience, or maybe an evening spent in hell isn’t everyone’s idea of a great night out. Yet the triumph of this St Andrean performance, produced by the independent Peachy Keen collective, is that it maximised the absurdity of the script’s witty repartee without losing the necessary existential angst, toeing the line between a show that was conscious of being exactly that – a show, and necessarily entertainment – while remaining true to its interpretation of philosophical urgency.
Director Rowan Wishart has become well-known for embracing “difficult” plays and grounding us resolutely in the fabric of their unfamiliar world by committing to elaborate aesthetic visions. I imagine I am not the only one who enjoyed the conceit of staging hell in the Union’s Small Rehearsal Room, a sweaty rectangular box that I’m sure has often seemed as inescapable to many of us. The set consisted of dozens of mirrors and lit lamps, a truly inspired adaptation of Sartre’s writing on perception, and the sense that we only exist in so far as we are observed – by others, by looking glasses; under the harsh light of a desk lamp. It contributed to the titillating thrill felt by the amused audience each time a character complained about the lack of mirrors in their hell, but it also transformed the room into one uncomfortable magnifying glass, hovering over those ill-fated humans and inspecting their failures as though subjects on a petri dish.
In such a still show, requiring so little in the way of tech, the actors are very much under a magnifying glass. It is required of them to weave an atmosphere that lighting transitions or projections won’t do. Thankfully, the actors were more than up to the challenge, in what was perhaps one of the most fittingly cast productions I have ever seen. Guy Harvey, though only featured for a maximum of twenty minutes, demonstrated the thoughtfulness of an interrogative actor who had clearly carefully considered his role. His deployment of obsequious smiles, physical tics, and vagueness of tone was masterful in how it combined the valet’s comedy as well as his mystery. George Lea was entirely believable as the frustrated Joseph Garcin, and conveyed precisely the journalist’s ego and idealism. He charted brilliantly the disintegration from a confident man to the reveal of his truer insecurities, a testament to the talent with which he paced the character’s unravelling. Annabel Steele as the coquettish Estelle Rigault was inspired – again, a genius meld of comedy and bathos, enrapturing the giggling audience for a minute with her silvery voice and charmingly tossed curls, before switching, flint-eyed, to the remorseless “baby killer”. Finally, Iona Robson gave an utterly faultless rendition of Inès – her watchfulness and intelligence evident in every jolting inclination of her head, every mercurial shift in tone; arguably, one of the finest performances Robson has ever given. It is rare to see a cast so universally strong, and it was a delight to watch.
It’s always courageous to stage a play in a non-theatrical setting – not only in the practical terms of tech and production matters, but also in the way of establishing a genuine suspension of disbelief. Nonetheless, when the lights switched off in one fell sweep with the play’s final line – “let’s get on with it”, referring to the process of torturing one’s fellow former mortal – I felt a very real unease. I had been transported to a plane in which I could well imagine how one might believe that “l’enfer, c’est les autres”. Wishart, her cast and her crew, have triumphed in staging a play that was written in the mire of moral confusion felt by Second World War Europe, and yet transferring its discomfort to a 21st-century audience. I only hope that productions as successful as these prove that it is always worth being ambitious enough to stage “difficult” plays.