No Exit: Welcome to a Special Kind of Hell

Thursday 10th May 2019 at the Carriageworks, Leeds.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit gets a claustrophobic and intense outing in this adaptation from Leeds Arts Centre’s Carrieanne Vivienette. 

Given the premise, the claustrophobia of the piece is a vital element achieved simply: three individuals arrive to a room – their Hell. They don’t find fire and brimstone in their afterlife, just two strangers with the ability to push emotional buttons, give verbal electric shocks and launch interrogations as incessant as water torture. There’s no hell like the hell we create for one another according to Sartre.

A bare set (design Steve Fryatt and Vivienette) features three seats: one upright, two plush – shifting reflections of our characters no doubt as they each wade through their history and defining evils. It’s an intensive 1hr 45 running time without interval and thankfully, both direction from Vivianette and performances from the cast make the piece somewhere between engaging and fascinating throughout. There are ebbs and flows, naturally, but the subject matter and the set-up of three pent up in a room of self-inflicted torment are certainly compelling. 

The characters in this special kind of Hell? Inez, Garcin and Estelle. Inez is the vindictive sort – the type to get into your head and start picking with a tiny manipulative axe. She has blood on her hands and an abrasive self-knowledge of her evil and Carol Bell’s performance gives her perceptible layers as she teeters between exposing and exploiting the vulnerabilities of others while actively demonstrating her own. 

Garcin is the despicable philandering type. A man incapable of respect but desperate for the reverence of others. James Bell gives a quick to anger performance which injects some great intensity into the piece, though his awkwardly benign depictions of impending backhanders do have a tendency to dilute the more perilous moments. 

Estelle is the entitled, manipulative type. She’s a walking combination of the vices of the others, with a special dose of extra shock-factor for good measure. Ceri Vaughan paints Estelle as a loathsome woman of both vanity and great superficiality. She thrives on attention and uses her feminine wiles to torment those around her and while Vaughan’s performance feels gratingly affected at times, there’s little doubt that such affectations are in keeping with such a woman as Estelle.

The only real niggle with this piece is that the main action is bookended by extended melodramatic void-with-haunting-music sequences (Sound design: Duncan Evans) which definitely need edits. As a concept, they make for arresting and suitably stark introduction to and departure from this hell, but the sequences are far too prolonged and what begins as very intense and impactful theatricality drifts into an extended Eastenders duff duff moment with each character staring and setting their faces in various impassioned expressions. Short and sharp is what those sequences are crying out for and with edits, those bookends would certainly have the cracking impact they are seeking.

Sartre’s work feels darkly lyrical and hauntingly relevant. It feels timeless simply because it is set in a void and deals with the most base aspects of humanity – and those are destined to never disappear. The cast do a fantastic job of maintaining intrigue across a challenging running time and Vivianette utilises the space and players in creative ways to maintain momentum. If you like a little darkness and existential peril in your entertainment, get yourself a ticket!

No Exit plays at the Carriageworks, Leeds until May 11th 2019 and you can find tickets here.

Photography: Mark Hillyer.

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