King’s Bunker, 8pm, until Tues 13th March
I nearly didn’t make it to the opening night of ‘No Exit’, almost losing my way thanks to the ambiguity of signs on doors informing me of ‘NO EXIT THIS WAY’. However, I made it safely to King’s Bunker and with a directorial debut, a brand new drama society and a recently reopened venue, there was plenty to get excited about.
For an inaugural play, Jean-Paul Sartre is hardly an easy option. ‘Huis Clos’ – usually translated as ‘No Exit’, although actually the French equivalent of the legal term ‘in camera’ – is a one-scene existentialist representation of the afterlife. Not exactly fun and games, then. But the cast coped well with the challenging text, bringing out elements of humour as well as shock, pity, and deeper philosophical ideas.
Giles Pengelly’s brief appearance as the valet was a solid performance in his Cambridge debut, although it might be worth remembering that even in interaction with other actors, it would be advantageous for the audience too to get a proper view of his facial expressions: I was in the unnervingly close front row, but I fear aspects of his performance would have been lost on the back sections of the audience. The majority of the play focuses on the three principal figures of Joseph Garcin, Inez Serrano and Estelle Rigault, who are placed together in this eternity of Hell – a Hell without fire, brimstone and everlasting tortures, but one in which guilt, desire and memory create punishment. Overall, the trio of Josh Walker, Olivia Stocker and Maria Pawlikowska pulled off impressive performances. Stocker in particular stood out as a consistently strong presence, demonstrating sarcasm, torment, pleasure, cruelty and defensiveness. Yet perhaps she, and indeed Walker, could have brought a little more variety to their characterisation, something which Pawlikowska accomplished excellently, moving from sensual flirtation to trembling fear to petulant anger with ease and fluidity. Walker’s Garcin was for the most part effective, yet his more passionately angry moments show that shouting does not necessarily equal emotion; quiet fear and confusion was more affecting than blustering rage. The interaction between the three principals, as alliances and power balances shifted, was the most successful element of the performance: longer monologues sometimes lacked a spark or faced the dangerous risk of being overacted.
Considering the setting of the play – a windowless room amongst the corridors of Hell – King’s Bunker made the perfect venue, although the set and props could have been more carefully considered. The knife was too obviously flimsy plastic, while the bronze ornament, supposedly too heavy to lift, looked as if it could fall if the cast pushed it a little harder. The constant yet faint jangly music was a nice touch however, suggesting a far-off tune that implied an unreachable world beyond this prison.
‘No Exit’ took a little time to warm up, but once it got into its stride it was an impressive and accomplished production which held the audience’s focus throughout this demanding play. It’s brilliant to see new drama societies emerging, and there was huge potential here: I hope to see much more of them in the future.