Spanning over two hours, Jean Paul Sartre’s seminal 1944 play No Exit (Huis Clos) is an acquired taste. It has to be consumed one take at a time, like the gentle chewing of undercooked rice. As part of Bangalore Little Theatre’s (BLT) three-day French Theatre Festival, Alliance Francaise de Bangalore staged the play on 20th August. BLT’s Director Training programme is an initiative to propel new artists and directors to come up with live productions within three months while learning to manage a theatre production. The third edition of the festival saw two more plays staged; Jean Anouilh’s Dinner With The Family and Moliere’s Tartuffe.
The afternoon show at 1 seemed auspicious with the patchy sky and the venue had a sombre air, synonymous to what an existentialist play would demand. Although it wasn’t a full house, as expected on an afternoon, the people present in the room had not come to watch just any other play. Sartre demands your attention at all times and fraying from this rule even for a moment means one cannot comprehend the next scene. The play, directed by Deepak Mote is a mélange of many sensory elements. One has to shift between what is happening on stage to what is happening on the other part of the stage while being in tune with the rumbling bass, snare drum with the cymbals against the backdrop.
‘Hell is other people’ is the meaning behind Sartre’s No Exit. As three individuals find themselves in a not-so-everyday living room sans the ‘devices of torture’, their conception of how the afterlife of damnation would be like comes crashing down. A bellboy with neatly combed hair in a snappy black jacket comes on stage and brings into the room its first occupant Joseph Garcin and answers many of his stock questions about torture chambers and hellfire. Garcin is soon followed by Inez and Estelle, two women who are to be his roommates for eternity. “It’s like this”, says Garcin in an inquisitive manner. “It’s like this”, answers the bellboy in a bored fashion.
The three occupants start showing their connections to the real world, portrayed by dancers on the other part of the stage, separated by a flimsy cloth. It gives the idea that it is within one’s reach yet unreachable. There are no mirrors in the room and the furniture is colour coded to match their personalities. Estelle frantically looks for a mirror to check on her appearance. Inez offers to be her mirror and tells her to look into her eyes. As Estelle frantically tries to put on her lipstick, Inez reveals the many dark secrets of Estelle and frightens her to the core. The three of them serve as mirrors for each other and in turn become unrelenting torturers.
Garcin is a dapper figure dressed in a beige coat and white shirt, a journalist from Rio de Janeiro by profession. As the heat in the room rises, he sheds his civilised self and the caricature of the coward and the unfaithful wife abuser he came out. He flees his country during the outbreak of the war and gets killed in action. Estelle, clad in a lilac one piece dress is a chirping flirtatious lady from Paris but like Garcin, her true face of a hypocrite and a child murderer propelled by lust and vanity emerges. Inez is a cold and calculated figure who is not afraid to say her mind and stand up for the same. A lesbian postal clerk, she ends up turning her cousin’s wife against him resulting in the murder of the latter. She doesn’t flinch away from showing her sexual desire towards Estelle who never reciprocates. Estelle, on the other hand, shows her lascivious nature towards Garcin because he is a man. Although reluctant at first, Garcin finally gives in to Estelle’s advancements, much to the distaste of Inez. He begs Estelle to not call him a coward and while she complies, Inez remarks that Estelle is doing the same just to feign attraction because he is a man and at this point, any man would do for her. This causes Joseph to make an attempt of escape from the room and although the door opens up, he isn’t able to leave because his redemption lies in convincing Inez that he isn’t a coward.
As their verbal paroxysms shoot up with the temperature in the room, the trio is able to see the characters they formed while they were alive. Now, in hell, nothing can be changed but to shed their outer pretentious selves and embrace what lies inside them. Isolated in space and time, in a room when the night never comes they are able to perceive the torture device they themselves are to one another. For all eternity, Estelle won’t care that Garcin is a coward till he kisses her; Garcia won’t be able to kiss her because he knows he is a coward while Inez will always despise Garcia and lust after Estelle in vain.
The lighting and the musical score in the backdrop play a crucial role in the play, highlighting the moments of crescendo. Somehow, the electricity cuts in between the play would not have surprised the viewer as it fits seamlessly into the atmosphere of it. The dancers depicting the earthly lives of the three characters are able to portray the emotion that is expected from them. The play gives Sartre’s message that for the living, change is always possible until the final choice is made.