Hell is other people: Nepali adaptation of Sartre’s ‘No Exit’ now in the theater

Director Ghimire Yubaraj deftly handles the ambitious staging of a play which embodies Sartre's existentialist philosophy

Rhishav Sapkota

  • Read Time 4 min.

Kathmandu: With the onset of the pandemic, when the world went into lockdown, theater houses went online, streaming plays via Zoom and Youtube. In Nepal, Theater Mall streamed plays that were recorded previously via Youtube. Shilpee Theater went a step ahead, putting out a successful virtual live staging of the Nepali adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit on Youtube. As the lockdown has been eased, that play, called Anupasthit Teen in Nepali, is now being staged at Shilpee’s black box theater. The play premiered on August 1, maintaining safety protocols and entertaining only a minimal number of audiences in the theater. It marked for a deja vu-like moment, with audiences back in their seats, exchanging reactions and passing applauses.

No Exit, which is about the afterlife and the nature of the human condition, was first staged in 1944, in German-occupied Paris. The acclaimed one-act play originally includes 4 characters—Garcin, Estelle, Inez, and the valet. The setting is a drawing room with a Second-Empire style aesthetic where a massive bronze ornament stands on the mantelpiece. 

In Anupasthit Teen, Garcin becomes Azaad (Bipin Karki), Estelle becomes Ichha (Usha Rajak), Inez becomes Avilasa (Pabitra Khadka), and the valet becomes the manager (Manhang Lawati). The Second Empire aesthetic is absent, except when suggested through dialogue, but the essential bronze ornament remains.

Bravely enough, Director Ghimire Yubaraj chose a complex play for a return amid the pandemic. He compared this attempt to cracking a hard walnut. When asked about the choice for the metaphor, he said, “To try to show both the façade and the core of a character is tricky work. We decided on the play mostly in zeal but it turned out to be a far more nuanced piece of work than we expected.”

And Yubaraj is right in his admission. He deftly handles the ambitious staging of a play which embodies Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. The characters are idiosyncrasies in themselves. They constantly bounce back and forth between opposite emotions, from courage to cowardice, from surety to self-doubt, from seduction to repulsion. All the while, a fundamental underpinning recurs throughout the play: each character needs the other to justify their existence.

The play starts with Azaad being escorted to the room by the manager. Azaad, who is a writer, immediately asks why there are no instruments of torture present in the room. By the end of the play, the answer is obvious: the characters themselves are each other’s torturers.

Anupasthit Teen makes the audience uncomfortable, prodding them to question whether death is the end or a continuation of the life they lived, and has the ability to make us realize that hell really is other people

Bipin Karki, who plays Azaad, brings to the stage a formidable intensity, especially shining in moments of outrage. The audience could tell when he misplaced one or two dialogues, but he was quick to improvise and the show went on. He seemed to elicit laughs from the audience by his, often abrupt, sighs and cries. A particular response from a woman in the audience stood out when Azaad says that ‘at least men know when to shut up’. “NO, NO, NO,” the woman exclaimed from her seat.

But it was the actor’s longer deliveries that managed to capture the audience more than anything else. When Azaad looks back from Hell to where his wife and his colleagues now live and goes on with his monologues, the audience can’t help but silently admire the delivery.

Ichha, played by Usha Rajak, is another complex character that the play has. The audience finds it hard to discern whether it is sex or her self-image that she craves more. By the end of the play, one could come to a conclusion that it is both. The mix made for the character’s off-putting presence which the audience can sense throughout the play. Rajak, the actor,  manages to give off an aura of selfish aloofness through Ichha. Her demeanor almost demands one to dislike her.  Yubaraj, the director, says this was intentional.  “We all know a person who we can’t bear to have in a conversation. Ichha was an attempt to personify that.”

The trance-like state she goes into when explaining the reasons why she must have ended up in the room shows that the character has faces she seldom shows, or is unable to show, under normal circumstances. 

Avilasa, played by Pabitra Khadka, is manipulative. Like Ichha wants Azaad’s attention, Avilasa wants Ichha. She acts as a crucial pivot, who constantly disrupts what Azaad and Ichha try to build between themselves. Her sexual advances that are uncomfortably and constantly dodged by Ichaa manage to make the audience wince in their seats. Avilasa too brings a certain uniqueness to the play. She is more direct than the other characters; you get what you’re looking at. Her jealousy and cruelty, however, could have been made more pointed.

Despite these relatively minor shortcomings, Anupasthit Teen manages to create one important effect on the audience. It makes the audience uncomfortable, makes them question whether death is the end or a continuation of the life they lived, and has the ability to make us realize that hell really is other people. What symbolises the thesis of the entire play is a little act at its end, where characters run across the stage mindlessly in circles, dodging each other—suggesting that no matter how far we run from ourselves while we live, we are confronted by our own truths in hell, especially through other people.

Photo: Shilpee Theater Nepal