The irony was probably lost on the audience member who decided to get up and go to the bar half way through Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Way Out. This response was no reflection on the quality of the play, directed by Tom van der Klugt and Felix Schaaf. In fact, it gave the Valet, played by Tamara Astor, an opportunity to improvise cleverly: Astor smiled, looked quizzically at the door and went off to investigate. She excels, coming as close to exceeding her minor role job description as any honest demonic jobsworth will.
Sartre’s play places Joseph Garcin, a journalist and deserter, postal worker Inès Serrano and Estelle Rigault, a high society wife, in a room in hell for all eternity. The room is furnished as an Ikea showroom, with two white sofas, a red swivel chair, a lamp and a cactus. The three main characters enter one by one, like obnoxious children from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who have just discovered that their golden tickets will earn them a lifetime supply of Ikea meatballs instead of chocolate.
Co-director van der Klugt plays Joseph with a slick, fatigued despair. Katherine Mangold’s Inès is a swaggering threat in a black leather jacket. Mangold displays the most vocal versatility, switching easily between mocking songs and savouring the word “damned” like an American pastor. Both Mangold and van der Klugt rely a little too much on shouting to express frustration. The moments of silence are much more chilling.
Sophia Sibthorpe demonstrates a superior emotional control and range as Estelle Rigault. Feelings flicker across her face. Privileged superficiality gives way to a haunting intensity in an instant. In a play full of the horrors of the watching gaze, Sibthorpe’s glance is the most harrowing. Estelle’s floral dress contrasts amusingly with Inès’s costume.
The use of lighting is for the most part less subtle. Each character experiences visions of life continuing on earth without them. During these speeches, the lighting dips and Astor plays an accordion on a chair just offstage. The Valet reveals at the beginning of the play that ‘customers’ in hell cannot blink. The blackouts act too much like a blink, momentarily isolating the character who is speaking from the oppressive company of the other two. This is too kind for Sartre’s hell.
Still, when Garcin strains to see and hear his former colleagues in the newspaper office on earth, Astor starts hitting the keys of the accordion like a typewriter, in a gleeful and refreshing touch.
The directors choose to make the customers’ doomed attempts at seducing one another very physical and direct. Estelle clambers all over Garcin while he stares unbrokenly at Inès. The actors find a hundred ways to shrink away from one another. This intensity of this physical interaction does dampen some of the terror of Sartre’s vision, however. His hell is a more upmarket showroom: it’s all about looking, not touching.
The physical farce does have its benefits. Towards the climax of the play, Garcin and Inès are dominating the action. Sibthorpe takes the chance to do her makeup. She smears red lipstick all over her face and applies her perfume liberally. The scent fills the small, hot theatre. In No Way Out it’s impossible to escape the sight of others. In this production, you can’t escape their smell either.
No Way Out played at the White Bear from 17 to 21 September. For more information, see the White Bear Theatre website.