Image by Noah Schmeling

Hell Is Other People: Já International Theatre’s “No Exit”

Adapted and directed by Suresh Nampuri, Sartre's classic takes influence from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities.

A small upstairs lecture room in Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciência, complete with a chalkboard and collapsible desks, is a fitting place to put on an original adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal 1944 play, No Exit. Adapted and directed by Suresh Nampuri of the Lisbon-based English-language Já International Theatre, 2023’s No Exit is a faithful adaptation of Sartre’s existentialist classic with just enough innovation to keep things fresh. 

Image by Noah Schmeling

The play itself is an inverted lecture of sorts, with three characters familiar to those acquainted with the source material prying into themselves and each other in hopes of understanding why, after living vastly different lives, they have been sentenced to a bleak afterlife in each other’s company. Logical, emotional, and scientific trains of thought, each more self-assured than the last, all seem to prove useless in explaining their shared predicament. The players, and to some extent the audience, continue to tell themselves and each other what the meaning of it all is, just to be proven wrong time and again.

Sartre’s original trio of male pacifist/journalist Garcin, Lesbian post office employee Inez, and wealthy-by-marriage trophy wife Estelle have here been updated to reflect the added dimensions of Nampuri’s adaptation. Taking influence from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1809 novel Elective Affinities, Nampuri combines Sartre’s investigation of why these three have been paired for a claustrophobic eternity in Hell with Goethe’s experimentations in observing the clashes of human personalities like chemical reactions. Nampuri’s prideful activist-journalist Vincent, played by Leonardo Proganó; lesbian cynic-criminologist Inez, played by Isabel Symington; and forlorn yet militantly logical chemist Estelle, played by Yeliz Balim, effectively represent the vast spectrum of human natures that, like atoms, can fuse into a helplessly codependent molecule despite their apparent differences. 

Image by Hrant Kachatryan

One by one, the three leads are led into their shared room by an irreverent and pointedly unhelpful attendant, played to perfection by Catarina Rebelo Guerra. Over the next hour, these three characters ebb and flow through alliances, disagreements, sexual attractions, and hopeless misunderstandings as they try first to blame their situation on each other, then on their “captors,” before moving on to bigger ideas. The play implicitly takes place on the wrong side of the afterlife, but acts as a clear representation of the world of the living as well. Why are these three people, from entirely different walks of life and of explosively disparate mindsets, sentenced to co-nonexistence together? What is the common thread between the sadistic criminologist, the conceited activist, and the jealous chemist? And where are the torturers with thumbscrews they were all promised?

The dynamic between actors Isabel, Leonardo, and Yeliz fluctuates seamlessly with their characters’ shared journey; every emotion is affecting. The anger, the suspicion, the attraction, all shift from and into each other with all of the urgency and vitriolic passion one would expect in the face of perpetual, perplexing captivity. In a play of such small physical scope, the wealth of thought and emotion present in No Exit is impressive to say the least. Even more impressive is the ability of Já International’s actors to ingrain palpable honesty and credibility in all of the production’s rapidly shifting states of mind. Watching No Exit in such a small, intimate environment, every shriek and silence lands with enormous impact.

Image by Hrant Kachatryan

On this stage, shared by the audience and the cast members, total understanding is always just barely out of reach. Every monologue grasps for the same thing the silent audience is searching for, and an arrival at catharsis is never guaranteed. No Exit’s characters and onlookers find common ground in an observation made by one of the the doomed characters early on in the production: “No manacles, no gratitude, no relief… but maybe that’s the point.”

No Exit is produced by JÁ International Theatre as a local theater movement under the Europa Creativa Program Theatre in Palm. The play is being performed at Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciência until June 17th, 2023. Tickets are available on Já International Theatre’s website. More information is available here.

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