No Exit – Celine Oudin and John Paul Sartre and the problem of the gaze. (theatre review)

“To forget about the others? How utterly absurd! I feel you there, down to my marrow.  Your silence clamors in my ears.  You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out – but you can’t prevent your being there.  Can you stop your thoughts? I hear them ticking away like a clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, and I’m certain you hear mine.  It’s all very well skulking on your sofa, but you’re everywhere, and every sound comes to me soiled because you’ve intercepted it on its way.  Why you’ve even stolen my face; you know it and I don’t.”


And these are just some of the chilling words each will say to the other when locked in the small overheated room that pulses with what each person fears the most; a mirror that reveals all our ugliness.  There is a wonderful opportunity in Sydney at the moment to see Huis Clos (In Camera or No Exit as it will be called for the remainder of this review) being performed in an intimate setting, by a top class production. John Paul Sartre wrote No Exit in the same year he wrote Being and Nothingness, and the play explores in a dramatic setting many of the themes he raises in his major philosophical work; themes such as complete subjectivity, the look and others, objectification and bad faith.


Celine Oudin, after performing in No Exit a few years back, has decided to revisit the play, this time as director, adding her own talented touch to an immutable work, as relevant today as it was in the forties when Sartre wrote it. To emphasize the timelessness and universality of No Exit, Oudin adds national diversity to her characters. There are charming small touches – the Second Empire furnishings replaced by Ikea sofas in a witty twist, and Estelle moves around in a breathtaking Spanish-style flounce of a dress. These and other small touches give the play a boost, successfully transporting it to a multicultural Sydney setting some sixty-nine years after the play was written. No Exit will be Seventy years old next year, and it remains as fresh, gripping and insightful as it was the day it was first performed.


Supporting Oudin’s intimate approach to the play are four excellent actors.  Dimitri Armatas is a witty valet, the keeper of the keys and answer to all questions. Zacharie Di Ferdinando is a very modern Joseph Garcin, surely one of theaters most complicated males. Di Ferdinando brings a youthful charm to Garcin while retaining the tragic force his character portrays. Carolina Diaz is a beautiful and wily Estelle Rigault, leaning on her charms, seeking rescue from responsibility on all counts.  However, the stand out is Divya Rajagopalan, so confident in the difficult role of Inez Serrano.  Rajagopalan has a powerful stage presence and makes the brilliant but defiantly cynical Inez the powerhouse pivot upon which the play balances. As each character makes their moves, counter moves and pleas they are shifted around the famous room by Oudin and Sartre bringing a deeper and darker sense of foreboding as the play moves toward its climax and its most famous line; Hell is other people.


The basic premise is one that we all know.  Three people are condemned to hell for crimes committed on earth.  No Exit is awash with Catholic referencing, and Satre draws heavily on Christian mythology to contextualize his existential theories. Even though the trio are in Hell, we discover immediately that Hell looks a little like earth and never do we feel so far from the three protagonists that we cannot see ourselves mirrored in their fate. This, of course is Sartre’s point.  We watch them, they are actors being “us”.  We are each others mirror, or worse, we are the distorted supposing of the other, an object in their world, slavishly dependent on their impressions of us for our actualization. This is what is meant by the famous phrase uttered by Garcon at the end of the play, “Hell is other people”.  Rather than the popular concept of hell being our complex attempts at connection, he means hell is the constant engaging that has us perpetually fall short of the way that we want to be seen. Oudin includes Sartre’s clear explanation of the phrase in the program.


And how do we get others to see us in a way that satisfies us?  Only by manipulation, or as Sartre called it, bad faith. But this will never satisfy us completely, and so we continue to be saddled with the knowledge that the hope of being “seen” by the other falls short always and hell is the realization there is nothing other than this to life and existence, and that one might be condemned to confront an endless unforgiving talking mirror, without sleep or any other form of freedom from consciousness.


No Exit is one of the worlds great plays, and this is a very fine production held at the Tap Gallery, in an intimate setting so one has the experience of being ‘in the room’ with the condemned. I highly recommend the production.  It runs June 19 through to 29, so you only have a few days left to see it, but do all you can to get there. Tickets available here. Please try to get to see it – this is one of the greatest plays you will ever see and you will not soon forget it.


The below occurred to me as I was re-reading the play, so I added it in as an afterthought.

It is often assumed one of the characters, Inez Serrano comes close to having the perspective of an existentialist, and may be the stand in for Sartre himself. I’ll toss my two cents in here, and add that his life long companion – Simone de Beauvoir, the equal and in fact intellectual better of him in many ways could be Inez, the way her damning eyes turn so potently on men and the women who use their inauthenticities to solicit male protection. I’ve never seen Simone de Beauvoir as a victim of Sartre, and the ‘evidence’ to squash her down to that size has always occurred as spurious. Inez is smarter than Garcon and Estelle put together, but in the end her intellect is her weakness, giving her an almost Nietzschean superiority to the point that it caused her own death.  When this play is read in conjunction with She Came To Stay (written the year before No Exit and while the couple were working on Being and Nothingness), it comes alive in new and interesting ways.

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir