Having found success in Michaelmas with another play about guilty people sitting in a room, director Zoë Firth seems well-placed to take on No Exit, an intense one-act drama about three strangers trapped together in Hell. This minimalistic, fast-paced production is a far cry from the ensemble cast and lush period setting of And Then There Were None, so I was intrigued to see how she and her team would approach the unique challenges that entails.
In the absence of the fire and brimstone they expected of eternal damnation, Inèz, Estelle and Garcin slowly discover that they are to be each other’s torturers – as such, they must be both immensely cruel and still recognisably human. “At the end of the day, they’re three quite ordinary people, and seeing ordinary people do awful things is so interesting, because it shows that these people go to Hell not because they’re extraordinary in some way,” Firth explained. “They’re actually quite normal, and that’s all the more chilling.”
The actors, for their part, proved more than capable of the intensity the play demands. In particular, Jessie See dominated the scene as Inèz, by turns seductive, solicitous and predatory as she hovered over Estelle (Lydie Sheehan). While the two women have excellent chemistry, Nils Reimer as Garcin was perhaps at his strongest when he was apart from the others, obsessing over his legacy among the living. To all three’s credit, the characters’ reactions to each other were just as impressive as the emotional monologues and quick-fire interrogations. When Garcin finally admitted the crimes that brought him to Hell, Estelle couldn’t bear to look at him, while Inèz couldn’t bring herself to look away – nor, I suspect, will the audience.
By staging the production in the round, Firth intends to capitalise on the intimacy of the BT and draw onlookers into the action. The door through which we enter the theatre will also serve as the locked door in the text, and the recurring theme of surveillance weighs all the more heavily when there are spectators on all sides to pass judgment (“Everybody’s watching,” Inèz taunts at one point, and Garcin is later tormented by the idea of “all those eyes intent on me”). When the characters look back at what’s happening on Earth in their absence, they do so by peering into the crowd. Everyone in the room has a role to play in the revelation that “Hell is other people.”
The excerpt I saw was entertaining and affecting in equal measure, and I’m confident that the rest of the show will be just as compelling. Between its innovative staging and electric cast, No Exit seems set to be a powerful and thought-provoking night of theatre you won’t want to miss.