“Huis Close” is also included as the alternative title to “No Exit”. The original play has been translated by Prateek Dutta and kudos to him for attempting the translation of such a difficult play.
The play foregrounds the central existentialist issue of a meaningless and absurd universe in which the human being nonetheless, has to act with moral rigour. Existentialism is close to Buddhism in this regard, in emphasizing the need for the human being to take responsibility for his own life and not seek easy ways out through actions involving ‘bad faith’ where the correlation between action and its rationale is a tenuous one. Regarding the endlessness and monotony of experience that are implied in the hellish existence of the three characters play, a state from which there is no escape, there are perhaps echoes of Camus’s ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ are perhaps there.
However, even if the play highlights an endless meaninglessness, there is a strong moral core that has to be acknowledged. Like Macbeth who was unable to sleep once he murdered Duncan (‘Sleep no more’, a voice had cried in his heart), the condemned characters who are ostensibly in Hell, forego sleep. Sleeplessness is their condition after death, an eternal state of being awake and in relentless contact with their minds which gives them no rest. Initially, the term ‘hell’ is not used for this strange space in which three characters ( two women and a man) find themselves and are subject to the brightness of electric light that is never turned off. However, eventually the term ‘hell’ to describe this space is used and the play closes with the famous catch-phrase, ‘Hell is other people’.
The opening scene whose prelude is hellish, cacophonous laughter, shows a young man dressed in white, who seems the keeper of Hell gate. What is interesting is that he dances with a robotic figure, perhaps implying that Hell is a space where organic feelings, emotions and states are not possible. Eventually, once we think of Hell as just a mental space, then it implies states of being where love does not exist in a vital form. And after all, all three characters who find themselves in this permanent, hellish space are those who have betrayed love in flagrant ways. These characters are Shehab Abasi (brilliantly played by Tathagata Choudhury), Inez Serano( Saoli Chattopadhyay, also well played )and Maria ( Madhurima Goswami, memorably played). Each character is guilty of violent desecration of life and other people. Hence in the ‘No Exit’ situation that the characters find themselves in, one could also if one wanted, read the operation of Karmic principle.
Before I forget to talk about the attendant in Hell, played by Suraj Biswas, I must say that his gymnastics, aerobics and ballet steps were well executed. As I watched I was reminded of Eugenio Barba’s concept of ‘natyadharmi’ or the kind of energy or channelizing of energy that causes an actor to ‘vibrate’ on the stage and have ‘scenic presence’. When Barba had asked Sanjukta Panigrahi what ‘natyadharma’ meant, she had said, ‘lokdharma’ is behavior in everyday life and ‘natyadharma’ is ‘behaviour in dance’.
What this truly means is that ‘natyadharma’ or the behaviour in performance, is codified and the outcome of the use of ‘extra-daily energy’; meaning that the actor has to pull on all the reserves of hidden and excess energy within herself/himself to train herself/himself as an actor. This energy is beyond what lies for the carrying out of daily activities. In his book The Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology Barba explains that this perfection or vibrating presence on the stage is caused by the proper use of ‘prana’ (India), ‘vayu’ (Bali), is known as ‘Ki Hai’ and ‘Koshi’ in Japan and ‘Kung Fu’ in China. I had been surprised to learn (when I prepared for my Body Performance Society class at Presidency University) that ‘Kung Fu’ traced its etymological origin to the Chinese philsopher Confucius and indicated mastery in any field. I must say that Suraj Biswas performed well.
This centrality of the actor goes back to Stanislavsky and is reiterated by many modern theatre practitioners among whom are Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, Peter Brook and Richard Schechner. Anirban Bhattacharya’s play reinforces the same primacy of the actor in the entire process of theatre.
The small auditorium at the National Institute of Mime, Salt Lake, achieved the kind of intimacy that Grotowski emphasizied in theatre. According to Grotowski, founder of the Polish Laboratory Theate in the early 1960’s( and the creator of ‘poor theatre’) , theatre must take on the function that religion previously had, which is bring the human being into close contact with her/his inner self. Theatre must become a space where pretentions must fall away, both for the actor and the audience. The actor is trained in a way that she/he has to do the most intense soul searching before performing the role and her/his level of sincerity will bring a moment of understanding and clarity to the audience too. Theatre thus becomes a space for the most intense self- introspection and self-awareness.
Is this what Anirban is trying to achieve? What is his goal behind staging Sartre’s ‘No Exit’?
A few words about setting–it was fairly minimalist, again as in Grotowski. The background was white and showed evolution in reverse—with the human being turning into ape. I also noticed a dinosaur in close proximity to the sun, but the meaning of this motif eluded me.
There was austerity in the presentation. When the final call for introducing the actors came, no name was mentioned, just the generic group to which the person belonged (acting, stage setting, stage technicality, direction and translation) was indicated. What seemed emphasized was that theatre was a group activity, a community activity, in which no participant was to be highlighted or given precedence over another. I liked this austerity.
I also thought if ‘Hell is other people’ it is also us. ‘Hell is also us, Hell is also me’.
Anirban Bhattacharya should do more work. His direction avoids excess in any sphere. As in classical aesthetics, every detail is moderate, economical and necessary leading to clean lines and symmetry.
the final question still remains– how relevant is ‘No Exit’ for us here, in Kolkata, in the 21st century and who are the people who would go to watch a play like this?