Arts Theatre’s early-week policy of rarely-seen revivals and experimentation is admirable.
Its current offering, Sartre’s In Camera is known also as “No Exit” and “Hois Clos” (“Vicious Circle”). First presented in France in 1944 and in America in 1946 it is, by whatever title, a dark and unrelenting piece of psycho-philosophical drama.
Sartre is recognised as one of the two leading French exponents of the philosophy of existentialism (the other being Marcel, who coined the term). Existentialism is defined in one dictionary as “a group of doctrines, some theistic, some atheistic … which stress the importance of existence as such, and the freedom and responsibility of the finite human being”. According to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, “Sartre … explicitly presents existentialism as an ethical doctrine … (adopting the position that) the role of choice in human life is absolutely fundamental.”
Sartre sets In Camera in hell not the hell of “racks and red hot pincers” but, for his trio of central characters, a sleepless eternity in a windowless room, perpetually lit, furnished Second Empire and devoid of mirrors. Here each must endeavour to come to terms with the critical life choices which brought them to this room and into the eternal company of each other in the first place.
Garcin is a journalist and purported pacifist who treated his wife abominably and died a jibbering coward in front of a firing squad.
Inez is a plain post-office clerk, cruel and determined, gassed by her lesbian lover after their relationship caused the suicide of the lover’s male partner.
Estelle is a promiscuous socialite acquaintance of the “Dubois-Seymours” who married an older man for security and fell pregnant to a pauper who danced the tango divinely and blew his brains out when she drowned their new-born child in a Swiss lake.
Inexorably they reveal these underlying truths to each other and as their connections with their former lives sever and fade, realise they can only come to terms with their “life choices” through the relationships they can establish within the room. But Inez needs Estelle. Estelle needs Garcin. And Garcin cannot find the solace he needs in either of them.
“Hell is other people.”
There is nothing to admire in any of these characters. They deserve to be in hell. We cannot sympathise with them or their situation. They present us with the “dark side” of ourselves and our relationships.
If the play is to work it must do so through our appreciation of the skill of the production and the ensemble talents of the actors. These needs are magnified by a dated and tending-to-melodrama structure and translation, peppered with phrases of the 1940s such as “You do look a dope my dear” and “Don’t be such a humbug”).
Regrettably the production plays into these pitfalls.
The patterns of movement from the first scene resulted in the upstaging of dominant characters at critical times. They were too often too static for too long and gave no sense of the “vicious circle” in which the characters are trapped and move. Movement was too often staccato-and-stop and lacked nature’s motivation and drama’s purpose.
With all characters required to deliver major soliloquies, a much higher degree of orchestration than was achieved was required to avoid the melodramatic quicksands.
Of the major characters, neither Jude Eakin (Garcin) nor Tanya Schneider (Estelle) realised the variety and emotional potential that each of their characters offered individually and through the ensemble trio. It was difficult to believe Garcin’s inner despair or Estelle’s sexual desperation before they finally decide it’s time to get on with never getting on.
However Sandra Harman as Inez came closest to capturing the spirit of Sartre’s hell and the consequences of decisions made that cannot be redeemed. Her performance was marked by maturity and vocal strength. And Susan O’Toole delivered a wryly believable valet.