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Climbing up a small country road in southern France last year, we came across an unexpected clearing in the wood. In the middle was a monument. It was to a group of local French Resistance fighters, men and women, who had been shot there as a reprisal for a resistance action. It was hard to believe that this tranquil, remote place with its tiny, sleepy villages had been the setting for such a violent and local struggle.
It is the grisly desperation of this conflict that Jean-Paul Sartre’s Men Without Shadows (Morts sans sépulture) depicts. Set in an abandoned house in occupied France, it focuses on the battle of wills between a group of local resistance fighters and the government’s military force. It is a grim watch, but all credit to the Finborough Arms for reviving this painful little play for the first time in London for 60 years.
The action switches between the boarded-up room in which the resistance fighters are imprisoned and the room below, where their captors inflict torture. The Finborough Arms being tiny, we are pretty much imprisoned with them, in the sweaty heat. And so we alternate between the heavy dread of the prisoners, as they pace the floor to drown out the sounds from below, and the stomach-churning tension of the torture room itself. Mamoru Iriguchi’s neat design makes the switch simply by upending a table and removing a wall-map, so keeping the play moving.
This being Sartre, the play concentrates on individual moral responsibility and the importance of one’s actions and motives in the murky confusion of war. There is a little too much heated discussion of the nature of integrity, but the director, Mitchell Moreno, and his cast find their way through the thickets. They are particularly good at screwing up the tension in the torture scenes: the audience wriggles in dismay as one prisoner is repeatedly nearly drowned, while the milice leaders casually eat their breakfast. The scenes upstairs are less successful: Moreno needs to find a way of conveying the exhausted state of his prisoners without making them inaudible or losing pace.
A worthy revival, though; but, if you are seeing it, you might want to take advantage of the Finborough Arms’ policy of allowing you to take your drink in with you. Tel 870 4000 838