One can have all sorts of hellish experiences in a theatre, but in the case of this play, the effect is deliberate. Jean Paul Sartre’s 1944 existentialist classic Huis Clos presents hell not as an inferno peopled by sadistic devils, but as eternity in a locked room, imprisoned with two strangers. It’s the play that famously contains the line “Hell is other people”, but in fact you emerge from Paul Hart’s fine, discomfiting production thinking that hell for these characters is being forced to face the truth about themselves and being trapped with people who won’t let them escape that truth.
Hart, a resident assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse, uses the tight confines of Trafalgar Studio 2 to excellent effect. Here the audience is confined with the characters in the windowless, carpeted drawing room with its threadbare Second Empire furniture. The claustrophobia is intense, as is the constant sense of watching and being watched. When the first occupant of the room, ex-journalist Garcin (Will Keen), is ushered in by an icily superior valet (a nicely precise performance from Thomas Padden), he thinks it not too bad. “Where are the instruments of torture?” he enquires of the valet, who smirks quietly at this simplistic reading of torment.
Gradually the parameters of his new “existence” become clear: he is to stay in the room forever, unable to sleep, deprived even of a toothbrush (a cleverly disturbing detail). It’s possible that the arrival of two further occupants – a brittle post office clerk (Michelle Fairley) and a vain, flirtatious socialite (Fiona Glascott) – might alleviate the unthinkable tedium, until a series of cat-and-mouse games reveals that the three have been carefully chosen to drive each other mad. Keen, Fairley and Glascott give meticulously pitched performances that complement one another vividly and reveal their characters’ varying levels of self-knowledge and self-loathing.
Sartre, however, did set himself a problem by creating a play that goes round in hellish circles and Hart doesn’t entirely escape it. By about two-thirds of the way through, the energy sags and the repetitive structure becomes tedious rather than intriguing. The tightly wound performances, to compensate, tip into hysteria. But this is still an unsettling revival of a play that, while it fits with the self-obsession of the modern age, also reflects the demand for self-scrutiny and accountability that the traumas of the second world war provoked.