Tag Archives: Jean-Paul Sartre

“The Flies” at the Bunker Theatre

Exchange Theatre brings famous foreign works, seldom seen in the UK, to London and great credit to it for this. Alternating weekly between performances in English and French, the company remit feels increasingly important in our potentially insular times. And this chance to see Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 play is far too rare. Maybe it’s the high stakes – or great expectations – that make the production a disappointment. Regrettably, it cannot be recommended.

Sartre’s take on the story of Electra has the people of Argos enthralled by a cult of communal repentance, inspired by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra’s tortured guilt over the murder of Agamemnon. Examining how religion and fear control people should be a theatrical godsend. But the multi-disciplinary approach of director David Furlong ends up messy – a gnomic nightmare of techniques with a laboured pace that is purgatorial.

The cast suffers from characterisations that seldom work and ideas about presenting myth that never take off. Raul Fernandes proves one exception, as a rather natty Jupiter, who is allowed ambiguity. But attempts at modernising the story look cheap. While there’s good work from Soraya Spiers, attempts at physicality, from hand gestures to running around the stage, are generally poor. The “half human creatures”, by turn the populace and the Furies, come close to being embarrassing in their gowns and pointy hats, then fishnet tights and high heels. There are simply too many predictable attempts to be odd for the sake of it. Yet another problem (oh dear) is the live soundtrack. Not that the music is bad or poorly performed – by a group called A Riot In Heaven – but it proves distracting and the cast have to fight with it. Audibility is an issue too many times.

There’s a little more joy with the central roles of Electra and Orestes, played by Meena Rayann and Samy Elkhatib. Their youthful appeal suits both play and production. Injecting energy into some admittedly stilted lines proves a sometimes painful struggle. Elkhatib even has to use the word swashbuckling and ends up wooden too often, while Rayann appears too eager, too mad too quickly. Lessons could be learned from Juliet Dante who, fittingly, takes the part of The Tutor with calm. It’s not just appropriate to the role but makes the performance feel less forced. Rayaan and Elkhatib get better as the show goes on, and Electra’s bad faith and Orestes’ turn as a rock star are at least interesting.

To see Sartre mapped on to a Greek story is fascinating. It illuminates his philosophy as well as the classical tradition and calls into question cultural heritage. Existentialism may not be fashionable right now, but these ideas changed lives, and Sartre’s radical freedom can still shock and excite. It’s not that Exchange Theatre prevents his work from being clear – that would be unforgivable. But the production does nothing to serve him. Bad ideas circle the show like flies around… well, you know the saying.

Until 6 July 2019


“Huis Clos” at the Southwark Playhouse

Philosophy is not full of one-liners and few of those one-liners pass into general currency. Sartre’s idea that ‘hell is other people’ is now commonplace and sees dramatic exploration in Huis Clos (translated here as No Way Out). Whether you either heartily agree or dismiss Sartre’s pessimism, in either instance a night at the theatre will probably not change your mind.

Sartre presents us with three incarcerated characters who discover that their hell is to be imprisoned with one another. As the play progresses, we learn why they have been condemned. An audience will either sympathise with the characters presented or find them too contrived to be believable. Actors presenting such characters need to tread a fine line, and the cast of the Southwark Playhouse’s production manages this tension pretty well.

Although Miguel Oyarzun’s strong accent takes some getting used to, he plays Garcin, editor of a radical newspaper, with an appropriately brittle machismo. Alexis Terry’s Estelle’s desperate sexual needs are less convincing, but her confused remorse about the murder of her child is moving. The highlight is Elisa De Grey who plays lesbian Ines with great physicality. Her confusion is palpable and manic.

In all instances however, the actors are hindered by Sartre’s out-of-date sexual politics and by a directorial concept that burdens the production.

Director Luke Kernaghan attempts to broaden Sartre’s concerns by making the work more political than the author intended, and he picks up and runs with the theme of torture. From Sartre’s original idea of a bourgeois group torturing themselves in a well-appointed sitting room, we are transferred to a sterile office that surprises characters anticipating the fiery inferno. More dramatic perhaps, and certainly timely, but a great deal less subtle and pointlessly forced.

Making this concept even more contrived, Kernaghan selects the period of Argentina’s desaparecidos and adds tango to the action. Tango was banned in Argentina during the 1970s because of its potential for public gatherings, and it was also played deafeningly loudly by authorities to hide the screams of those tortured.

The surreal atmosphere and good choreography from Kele Baker means that characters bursting into dance do not provoke laughter – but they don’t add much either. A further attempt at contemporaneity also fails. With a nod to our surveillance society, video footage of the characters is played back to them. Not only does the television contradict character’s frustration that they cannot see themselves in hell, the set itself is too small for the audience to see either.

This final shortcoming is surprising when so much thought about the venue has obviously been given. The Southwark Playhouse’s relatively new home may not actually be underground but it feels subterranean. Pictures of ‘the disappeared’ line the entrance and even the bar is designed to take us back to the 1970s.

During the production, apparently random noises from the trains overhead, which could be frustrating, add to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the context that has been forced upon the play fails to hold the attention. Rather than questioning whether hell really is other people, the trains made me think about the hell of commuting.

Until 12 September 2009


Photo by Marc Antoni Cifre

Written 23 August 2009 for The London Magazine