Written and first produced in Nazi-occupied Paris in1944, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit meant something very different for its original audience than it does for us today.
In the play three people are locked into a windowless, mirrorless room by a valet. The audience quickly realizes that they’re dead, and the characters soon understand that this is hell. There’s no fire and brimstone or a devil to torture them. Each will torture the others simply by their presence. In the most famous line of the play, “Hell is other people.”
A society living under Nazi occupation with no apparent way out would have understood that line and the meaning of the title very clearly. After the war, when Sartre became the most famous of the existentialists, the play was seen as an illustration of his philosophical ideas about selfhood and free will.
This dazzling new version co-produced by Electric Company Theatre and The Virtual Stage emphasizes the media over the message. Director Kim Collier frames the issues of morality and freedom within fascinating questions about the relation between theatre’s liveness and the powerful moving images of video and film.
The play is staged inside a former factory warehouse, now (appropriately) part of the Centre for Digital Media campus. Far to the audience’s right is the door through which the Valet (Jonathon Young) escorts the three damned: Cradeau (Andy Thompson), Inez (Laara Sadiq), and Estelle (Lucia Frangione). Once the Valet locks the door, we see the three only through large video images from cameras inside the room, projected onto a wall in front of us.
The most fascinating moments occur at the threshold, with the door still open, when we see the characters simultaneously as video projections and living bodies. It’s hard to know where to look or which seems more real, the peripheral vision of living people or the straight-ahead image of them. Later, when the Valet—wrestling with his own experience of hell—climbs a ladder in front of a huge video close-up of Estelle’s lips, the human seems so tiny, the image so freakishly potent.
The action inside the room where the three people increasingly torment each other is played formally in period style. It’s nice to be able to see such wonderful actors in 10-foot-high facial close-ups. But the style, underlined by scratchy 1940s records the Valet plays, further distances us from Sartre’s ideas. The focus is clearly on contemporary issues of perception and technology.
Kudos to the entire production team, especially John Webber for lights and Brian Linds for sound. And special mention to Bojan Bodruzic who runs the cameras inside what turns out to be a tiny, cramped room where no one would want to spend eternity.