'Hell is other people'

In a daring move, the young production company Troupe 18:45 will be putting up a production of Jean Paul Sartre’s enduring but intellectually hefty play No Exit at MITP Theatre, St Christopher’s Street, Valletta on March 19 and 20. Teodor Reljic speaks to Shirley Blake, actress for and co-founder of the group.

What made you choose this play, as an early production for the company?

Frankly, it is a bold choice especially for the first and proper production of a new theatre company. It will be our baptism of fire! Troupe 18:45 was born out of a need: to experience good quality theatre that speaks to the audience and leaves an imprint, a thought, a provocation. We want our plays to be a conversation with our audience. 

Our aim is to explore and develop insightful, challenging plays, either new and original ones or reinterpretations of established works.

Troupe 18:45 strives to produce plays that tackle issues of social, cultural and political relevance allowing its performers to take risks in the search of artistic fulfilment. 

We intend to use the unique power and magic of theatre to ask difficult questions about the world we live in, examining the forces that influence what we believe in and why we do so.

We read several scripts until we bumped into Sartre quite by accident.  After many discussions we opted to dare and play Sartre because he is first and foremost appealing. 

We believe his works appeal to a wide audience, the language used is easy to follow and the concepts readily understood.  Three souls trapped in a room in Hell, interacting together and pushing each other to the limit. The plot is easy and the interaction between the souls is paced, intense and at some points comical too!

Do you think Sartre’s work still holds an appeal today? Do you think it appeals to some audience members over others? If so, which and why?

This play is a modern classic, regularly performed all over the world. Sartre’s best! Sartre’s themes in ‘No Exit’ have a universal appeal. The central theme is disturbing and thought provoking because it deals with a controversial vision of the thereafter: hell is presented as an arena where the gladiators are three damned souls who are each other’s torturer.

In this hell, there is no need of devils and torture contraptions: hell, according to Sartre, is ‘other people’, a scary assertion that the audience may or may not agree with. But think of the people around you: would you say that some fit Sartre’s bill of hell-bearers for you?

What are some of the most challenging aspects of the production, in your opinion?

Physically animating the play is certainly a challenge. How do you create dynamic moments out of a relatively static piece created by a philosopher? Our production seeks to put theatre before philosophy, action before verbosity, without in any way belittling the intellectual weight of Sartre’s masterpiece. Another challenge is in fact how to create the infernal ambience on stage, our environmental and physical setting. We’ve decided to go for a stage design that embraces the audience and draws it into the action, includes it in the proceedings.

On that note, what kind of challenges does an up-and-coming theatre company face in the Maltese scene?

Troupe 18:45’s major challenge in the Maltese scene is to establish itself as a company seeking to explore innovative and interdisciplinary techniques, styles and themes with a view towards experimentation. Clearly, there are also great difficulties in attracting an increasingly varied audience to our theatrical performances.

Our main aspirations remain to engage the audience by adopting a philosophical and risky approach.  We are very aware of the difficulties this implies, but we’re ready to work on it, performance after performance.

Funding of course remains a major challenge for small companies working with important scripts.  Any production, even the simplest, entails various expenses and even though we are willing to act and produce for the sheer love of it it’s impossible to avoid costs such as equipment, costumes and props, printing, an so on. 

No Exit is being produced under the patronage of the Embassy of France in Malta and we hope to find similar support from other public and private entities in the future.

Both shows start at 20:00. The rest of the cast includes Sharon Bezzina, Erin Stewart Tanti and Roderick Vassallo. The play is directed by Albert Marshall, and is rated 16. Tickets at €12 can be booked by calling 21223200 or by logging on to https://ticketengine.sjcav.org/?eventname=No+Exit.