The Frewin Undercroft, a vaulted crypt-like performance space which belongs to Brasenose, makes an unexpectedly fitting venue for the Oxford’s latest production of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit. It’s hot and dark inside; the seating is cramped, the set austere. Everything contributes to the audience absorbing the same feeling of being hemmed in that afflicts the play’s characters.
In a venue like this, there’s absolutely nothing for the actors to hide behind: no ensemble dance numbers, no stagey delivery to an audience ten feet away. Instead they must face the test of delivering the text realistically to people just inches in front of them. And in general, No Exit succeeded. All four actors listened well and supported one another. The casting was spot on, from the moment Jamie Randall opened the play with a short but well-acted appearance as the most insubordinate valet ever until the end.
Louisa Holloway was spiky and powerful in the role of Inez: she shows a great understanding of the character, and manages to be rather unnerving. Peter Drivas plays a sweaty, passionate Garcin and has some particularly good moments when revealing the dark side of his past. Olivia Charlton-Jones plays Estelle with great sensitivity to her character’s vulnerable side, and thickens the air with sexual tension.
The story was well told by the ensemble, and held the attention without any boring patches; at best, the performance was engaging and hilarious. However, I felt that sometimes actors spoke too loudly in what is rather a small space. I did occasionally come close to switching off due to excessive volume, but at least we could hear – and in fairness it could be argued that all the shouting was motivated by the dramatic need of angry arguments in a play where ‘hell is other people’.
Will Bland directed the play with great attention to clarifying the intentions of the characters. This was further enhanced by the movement, which was outstanding by the standards of student productions, as every move had a clear and illuminating purpose.
The set was simple but not bare: three leather armchairs, a table and a Buddha. It worked, although when the characters were sitting down it was sometimes difficult to see their faces. So try and get there in time for a front row seat. If you do, it’ll be worth it – this is a very thorough and entertaining take on a great modern play.