Huis Clos

February 7, 2010By Nick HammondArchive

A Pleasant Evening in
Sartrean Hell

Paris Update Huit Clos

The Théâtre du Nord-Ouest on the busy Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, just off Paris’s Grands Boulevards, has definitely seen better days. The peeling paint and dilapidated interior are telling signs that the theater operates in a city that has been hit hard by the economic crisis. A former cabaret where Edith Piaf often sang, it was converted into a theater in 1997 and receives some financial backing from the French Ministry of Culture, but one imagines that it is a struggle to stay afloat.

Ever since it opened, the theater has presented programs of astounding ambition, staging the complete works of many of the great French playwrights, including Racine, Corneille, Molière and Marivaux, as well as of dramatists from other countries, such as Shakespeare and Strindberg. But it also revives plays that have rarely been performed. I remember a few years ago seeing an engagingly energetic production of Les Visionnaires, a wonderful comedy by the 17th-century playwright Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin.

The program of plays scheduled for the December to March season looks interestingly varied, including Alfred de Musset’s brilliant but sprawling Lorenzaccio, Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot and Fin de Partie, Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine and Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes.

When I went the other night, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos (No Exit) was being staged (and will be performed at regular intervals until mid-February). To my mind, much of Sartre’s theatrical output suffers from being fundamentally untheatrical. Too often his characters seem little more than mouthpieces for his philosophical musings rather than living dramatic creations. Huis Clos, however, is an exception to this rule: the scenario of three very different characters (Garcin, Inès and Estelle), all recently deceased, who are ushered by a valet into a room (completely bare save for three Second Empire-style chairs and a bronze sculpture on a mantelpiece, and appropriately staged here in a black hole of a theater) is tautly constructed and dramatically very effective. All three characters confront not only their past lives but also each other as they come to the realization that they have been locked in the room for eternity, inspiring the famous Sartrean line, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”).

This production has alternating casts. On the evening we saw it, all four actors turned in well-paced, energetic performances. The fragility of the vain character Estelle (played by Marta Corton Vinals), who, for want of a mirror, is forced to rely upon Inès for affirmation that her lipstick is in place, is convincingly portrayed. The controlled and controlling Inès is played by Isabelle Erhart with just the right amount of outward bravado, masking a brittle sensibility. Although Thierry Angelvy, in the role of the coward Garcin, has a tendency to garble his words, he does a good job of bringing out the complexity of the character. James Neyraud was suitably jaded in the minor role of the valet.

Inspired by Paris Update’s review of the restaurant Circonstances, located just down the road from the theater, I went for a meal there before the performance, which started at the awkward time of 8:45pm. Not only is the restaurant open from 7pm (unlike many Parisian restaurants, which tend to open at 8pm), but its food is as excellent as the review indicated. All in all, a thoroughly nourishing evening of culinary and theatrical delights.

Nick Hammond

Théâtre du Nord-Ouest: 13, rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 75009 Paris. Métro: Grands Boulevards. Tel.: 01 47 70 32 75. Performances of Huis Clos will continue through February 12. Further details of the Théâtre du Nord-Ouest program can be found at

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