Recently I watched Hannah Gadsby’s half-stand-up-half-call-to-action, Nanette, on Netflix. In her performance, Gadsby describes the relationship between the comedian and their audience as being manipulative and abusive, relying on comedian’s creation and eventual release of previously nonexistent tension in the audience for the punchline to hit. Theatre functions much the same, I think. Certainly after watching Peachy Keen’s recent production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, directed by Rowan Wishart, which stretches this concept to its limits, building and building and refusing any relief until the last minute of the play. I really don’t mean to go on and on about tensions, which I know I wrote about in my last review, but so much of performance, particularly dramatic (though, as Gadsby says, comedic as well), relies on the deliberate creation and manipulation of tension in order to be effective. This production of No Exit handled its tensions well, which was vital to its success as a four-character play.
Wishart’s decision to perform the show in the Small Rehearsal Room of the Union was unconventional, and I wasn’t sure what to think going into it. I have to applaud Grace Cowie’s lighting design, decorating the ‘stage’ with lamps, which was creative and unexpected. I also liked the decision to use mirrors as a backdrop, though they weren’t as integrated as I would have liked. I kept expecting the actors to actively engage with them, or for them to reflect the characters’ blocking or expressions back to the audience from a different perspective. I was disappointed when they remained largely unacknowledged for most of the play. Because the mirrors weren’t integrated, I felt it might have been more effective to strip the play to its core and have a minimalist set instead. I also felt that the space of the Small Rehearsal Room would have been better used if the audience had been placed on three sides of the actors, in thrust staging. As it was, because the seats couldn’t be raised as they are in the Barron, it was often difficult to see past the first two rows. This is probably my biggest critique for the production; I would have liked to feel more a part of the action in the play than I did, and I felt the staging hurt more than helped. While the Small Rehearsal Room might have been perfect had it been staged differently, as it was, I think the production would have been better suited to the Barron.
The performances were complex and well-developed. In the play, Garcin acts as the primary point of tension between Estelle and Inez, and I felt George Lea’s performance in this role was particularly convincing and his body language spot-on. My favorite moment, however, was Annabel Steele’s ‘dancing’ monologue, as Estelle, which was captivating and confidently delivered. Iona Robson also did well as the icy Inez; I only wish that the script had allowed her more moments of vulnerability, as I felt it was more difficult to grasp Inez as a character than with Garcin and Estelle. Inez is a self-proclaimed ‘damned bitch’, and it seemed as though Sartre, in writing the play, kept her fixedly in the ‘cold lesbian’ stereotype (though it is undoubtedly progressive for a play published in 1944). Lastly, though only briefly on stage, Guy Harvey was wonderfully cast as the Valet, adding a special touch of humor to the play’s opening moments. These actors carried and developed the play’s tensions well, carefully building to the final moments of laughter. I do feel, however, that the tense moment between Estelle’s stabbing of Inez and the realization that neither is incapable of dying, that they are stuck together in eternity, could have been longer, or the stabbing more ‘realistic’. Had the blocking been directed to make the stabbing, and the plastic stage knife, less seen by the audience, I think the final collapse into hysterical and defeated laughter by all onstage would have been more hard-hitting.
I was expecting this production of No Exit to be more innovative than it ultimately was. I thought there could have been attempts to make it more ‘modern’, and there are elements of the script that would have lent themselves well to this: Garcin’s act of cowardice, Estelle’s not wanting to have children, Inez’ sexuality. Instead, the play felt determinedly stuck in the time of its publication, from the characters’ softly lilting accents and carefully formal movements to the soft lighting and statuesque mantelpiece. That being said, the decisions made were well done, consistent, and highly engaging. I don’t think this is a play that’s necessarily meant to be enjoyed, but I can say that it kept me, and much of the audience, squirming uncomfortably in our seats as the tensions built, as I think it’s meant to. They manipulated us beautifully. With just a few changes, this could have easily become a five-star show. I thank the cast and crew for their thought-provoking performance and look forward to seeing more of Peachy Keen’s productions in the future.
Rating: Four stars