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01 May 2011 @ 04:28 pm
No Exit - Welcome to Hell  

No Exit - as performed by 'The Electric Company Theatre'

There is a hushed, metallic pulse on the air. Like a heart, it quietly beats behind the fine layer of smoke blurring the theatre just enough to make us wonder if we're walking into a dream. Be warned, if you find yourself wandering through the rows of seats, glancing up at the gilded colonnades either side of sparsely furnished stage, you've wandered into hell – or several versions of it.

Like a fractal – the trap spirals in and in. Everyone is watching or being watched. Oblivious, most of the audience chat excitedly, finding their seats and flicking through programmes. It is not until the lights fall and the claustrophobic darkness traps us that we realise we're in some kind of vault.

The seemingly innocent jingling of keys and eerie whistle of the Valet as he sets up the bunker at the side of the stage will soon become reminders of this prison. His torch, searching through the smoke, settles on the audience. Everyone is here. Everything is in place.

"It's in place!" the Valet insists. Alone on the stage, he yells into a phone and then hangs up.

The script is largely unchanged from Jean Paul Satre's No Exit – with the addition of Jonathon Young's The Valet, whose role in this production has been greatly expanded. In short, three (appalling) people find themselves trapped with each other in a small room, presumably for eternity. They are ushered and kept there by a French valet who patrols thousands of other rooms just like this one. Their existence is his and this world is his prison of which he is both puppeteer and puppet.

This is unapologetically an existentialist work. It's most famous line, 'hell is other people' lives on through popular culture and is the focus of this production. The three trapped in small bunker live-acting to half a dozen camera's have only each other for company. (Rather apt considering the French title of the play, 'In Camera'). We see them through carefully constructed camera projections above the stage. We, and the Valet, are forced to endure their inevitable destruction of one another.

Technically, it is as ground-breaking as it is successful. Locking three quarters of your actors away from the audience is brazen but the Electric Company is clever... The direction of of the cast towards the cameras is flawless whether their disembodied arms are pointing across frames or they are leaning in toward us at just the right moment to catch the sheen of hopelessness in their eyes – we're captivated.

Director, Kim Collier has blurred the perfection of cinema with the fragile, raw thrill of theatre, and that on its own is a feat. Tear the Curtain was another foray into this and the deeper the company delves into this hybrid medium, the more it opens up, telling multiple dimensions of a story simultaneously. In a word, it is breathtaking and an artistry in its own right.

With most of the cast locked away – the stage is left to the Valet, Jonathon Young.

Originally merely a tool to lead people into their 'hell', for the majority of the performance he remains silent. As he informs us towards the beginning, 'Pay no attention to the valet. He is nothing. He means nothing. He feels nothing.' He is the very definition of existentialism and yet this is immediately and darkly subverted by the Valet flashing us a pleading card, 'I can't stand this any longer'. He wants to be free. He knows that he is in hell.

It is this dark, unspoken humour that flickers in and out of the performance. Instead of detracting, it engages us – our amusement of the Valet's hell surely sealing his fate.

He has very little to amuse himself in this enormous stage. A bed, a desk – the screens showing the inmates. He sometimes plays us old music as a backdrop to the prisoners' stories or chuckles softly at their jokes. Then there are the mirrors.

The first thing the Valet does is remove the mirrors from the bunker so that the prisoners can never see themselves again. This leaves him with mirrors that he frequently lingers in front of. Aside from a disembodied uncle on another floor, the Valet has only himself for company. Perhaps then, true hell is being forced to observe oneself, the reflection never changing.

Without being there, it is difficult to explain why this set up is so effective at conveying the chasm of hell and the claustrophobia of being trapped there. Immensity can be oppressive and the illusion of the Valet's hotel as he walks over the rafters, clambers up ladders and races through the orchestra seating convinces us that we are stuck in it with him.

By doing this, the Electric Company has placed a magnifying glass on Jean Paul Satre's play, giving it a dark heart and weaving the audience in. The Valet has the entire stage – the innmates are locked away in a tiny room and it feels smaller simply by the grace of the Valet's space.

For him, it is the Ground-Hog day of hell. Forced to re-live this again and again, the Valet knows everything the inmates will say, every decision they will make. For the prisoners, their world is inevitable even though they are free to make their own decisions. The Valet must read his script and wait for them to destroy each other – revealing their twisted souls to each other.

Now we know that the marks scratched into the wall show that the Valet remembers every round.

Not only was I lucky enough to see this production two nights running, the second time I caught the Questions and Answers segment. When the actors were asked by the audience how it felt to act behind a wall, they expressed the difficulty of not knowing if their performance was being received. Actors need an audience just like hell needs one and so, in a way, the show is a mirror of the entire entertainment medium.

As fascinating as the original play was in concept and script, it was often accused of being dry. This re-imagining is not dry. Far from it. Its dark humour and pushing (read tearing) of the fourth wall brings the audience crashing into hell with the characters and keeps us there, trapped by the thin layer of fog that permeates all corners of the stage and theatre as the Valet shines his torch out onto us.

He knows we're there – watching him. We're his jailers and that makes us part of the work.

Is there hope, then? I am sure the Valet believes it. For with every round - every night, there is a chance that his audience will free him.  A very faint chance. A flicker - little more than a heart beat in the background.

Feeling...: jubilantjubilant
The Nikola Tesla Protégé: Jonathon: Playtardis_mafia on May 1st, 2011 05:34 am (UTC)
A brilliant, BRILLIANT performance!! I'll never forget it...
mikasteelelell: Nikola_Chairoxbastetxo on May 1st, 2011 08:34 am (UTC)
It sounds completely wonderful and your write up should be published!!! Lovely job dear.

So glad you're having fun!

hypercazhypercaz on May 2nd, 2011 04:09 am (UTC)
sounds very intellectually stimulating - but the real question I want to ask is... did he live up to your fantasies in RL? XD
Jessica: brianjessica_eliza on June 20th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
Omg. I wish I was there to experience it all. It sounds absolutely brilliant AND fantastic!