No Exit: Sartre's hell brought to life by Egypt's Teatro Independent Theatre

Soha Elsirgany, Thursday 24 Oct 2013

67 years after 'No Exit' was written by Nobel prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre, the play remains timelessly relevant in its assertion that 'Hell is other people'

No Exit
Sartre's No Exit by Omar El-Moataz Bellah's Teatro Independent Theatre troupe

Brought to the stage by director Omar El-Moataz Bellah and his company Teatro Independant Theatre, No Exit opened at downtown's Falaki Theatre Wednesday 23 October. The play will be performed again on 24 and 26 October.

No Exit (Huis Clos in the French original), the canonical play by Existentialism icon Jean-Paul Sartre, tackles concepts of 'the self' and 'the other' by depicting three characters condemned to each other's company while they reflect, eternally, on the lives they leave behind.

El-Moataz takes full advantage of theatre's dynamic and malleable nature as he gives this classic text a contemporary treatment, while remaining faithful to the central motif of "Hell is other people." 

The director has reworked Sartre's script to include Arabic, French and English, all spoken with no subtitles; yet the characters understand one another and carry on conversations regardless of the language barrier. 

Drawing from his personal life, El-Moataz considers the performance a space within which to frame the trilingual script and treats the set differently each time, making it his own. In this third reprise for the performance in Cairo, he truly demonstrates his ability to exercise the artistic innovation and interpretation provided by the medium.

During the previous No Exit performance -- part of Hal Badeel Festival at Rawabet Theatre -- the set had been designed as a simple space, reminiscent of a hospital room, on a central stage around which the audience was circularly seated.

The first time No Exit was performed at the French Institute, however, the set had depicted a construction site being continuously built. "Everyone has his own hell" director El-Moataz told Ahram Online, explaining that he had then lived in the vicinity of a construction site.

This time, the performance opens to a large empty cage placed centre-left of the dimly lit set, demon-like creatures slowly crawling and slithering around it. A general sense of foreboding is already established before the characters' appearance on stage.

Joseph Garcin, the first of three cell inmates, is led into the cage by a valet before being joined by Inez and Estelle -- all similarly dressed in the orange jumpsuits and black boots of criminal prisoners.

However, unlike criminal inmates awaiting their sentences, these characters have already received theirs, though they aren't quite sure how they are meant to suffer.

They start by engaging in polite introductions and denying the reasons behind their damnation, questioning if they are grouped together by mistake or design. Inez is the first to conclude that they are to be each other's torturers.

As the plot develops, the characters gradually drop their pretences and eventually become so capable of clearly reading each other that their coexistence grows problematic. 

On the surface, the dynamic between them may appear like that of a love triangle, frustrating all parties, but themes of self-image and the judgemental gaze of 'the other' are prevalent throughout the dialogue. The absence of a mirror in the cage renders them all nervous, leaving each of them at the mercy of the others' eyes.

Within the simple yet dynamic set, the position of the cage shifts across the stage at different times of the play, while the characters circle each other within it like captive lions.

Previously awarded for best scenography at the French Institute in Cairo's Jeunes Createurs Festival (Young Creators Festival), No Exit demonstrates El-Moataz's background as a visual artist. He approaches his plays the way an artist does his paintings. To him, all works of art are similar in nature -- the eye always travels, each medium leading it differently.

"A painting is a drama that is framed. A play is a painting being performed," he says.

Teatro Independent was established in 2003 and has since produced two plays written by the director: Sick Relations and Being Adam, both also existentialist explorations of varying angles. His interest in the subject led him to No Exit, which required four years of work before going on stage.

El-Moataz Bellah leads a life open to inspiration, constantly gathering pieces for new projects, merging epiphanies. Although the director revealed that he's already begun thinking about the next project, even as No Exit is still being staged, he declined to disclose any details until they are 'ripe'. 

No Exit is an experience that takes the viewer into El-Moataz Bellah's artistic world for an hour. The director hopes, however, that the performance will have a longer-lasting impact on the audience's thoughts. Indeed, as one departs from the auditorium after watching the play, a question rings loudly in the mind: If there are no fiery pits, then what, indeed, is hell?

23, 24 and 26 October at 7pm
Falaki Theatre, 113 Kasr El Ainy St. (on AUC campus), Downtown, Cairo

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